Category Archives: Issue 46

Antumbra, by Cory Skerry

As you enter the doors of this school for the last time, the girl who your brother slept with last night brightens for just a moment before she realizes you’re not Jesse. She deflates.

You and your brother should be identical—technically you are—but no one has ever mistaken you for each other.

Jesse comes out the door just behind you, and the girl’s gaze ignites once more. You lean against the lockers, your backpack lumpy against your shoulders, and listen patiently, painfully, as she stutters her way through nonchalance she obviously practiced in front of the mirror this morning.

Jesse shares a mirror with you, and all he talked about was what your next house will be like, your next school.

You had nothing to say about the next school because you like this one. It’s nothing special—it’s a rural school, smaller than your last. Everything is the color of Reese’s Pieces, except the vomit-green floor. You stare at it, at your and Jesse’s white-capped sneakers and Dani’s—Dina’s?—weird purple bowling shoes, stationary pylons in the sea of other feet pattering by.

Work boots shedding dirt, more skate shoes, shiny running shoes, spiked Doc Martens—and a pair of ghostly pale bare feet, the toes so long they could curl around a pencil, the talons stained a dark rust-red.

Your head snaps up, but you see only two bulky boys laden in plaid, ones you named Fox Buckle and Fox Hat in your head. In the second it takes them to pass, whoever—whatever—walked beyond them has vanished.

“Jasper, you okay?” Jesse asks.

“Yeah, I just—” You look around for an excuse, so you don’t sound crazy in front of this D-named girl who might tell everyone, which you shouldn’t even care about since you’re moving again.

Jesse is sharp enough to spot Freddy.

Freddy wears those spikey Docs, a septum ring, and a halo of dark curls. Even though you’ve never said a word about thinking Freddy is cute, Jesse knows the photos you heart on Instagram.

He elbows you just a little too hard. “Last chance,” he whispers, before he turns his attention back to D-name Girl.

He’s right. You think about it, about asking Freddy if he wants to come over tonight and play videogames or watch a movie or something. But you can’t do it. Somehow it’s easy to just put on headphones and a blindfold and pretend Jesse isn’t having sex in the bed next to yours, but you don’t think you could lose your virginity with him playing air guitar across the room, which is the only way Jesse wears headphones. Not even your kissing virginity.

The bell rings.

Your family prays before every meal, and you wish you didn’t have to hold your mother’s hand, because she squeezes like you have a secret, like she knows you.

“How was your last day?”

She asks this for the second time this year, and it’s only May. She pushes back the sleeves of her comfy sweater as she pours herself a glass of orange juice.

“I got everyone to sign my guitar case,” Jesse says. He shovels pancakes-for-dinner into his mouth as if they were his favorite, but they’re actually yours, and that’s why you eat slowly, cutting the pancakes into fluffy squares and savoring every bite as you listen to him talk about a day that won’t matter by tomorrow.

Eventually, there is a lull as he drinks his juice.

“Jasper?” your father asks.

When you don’t respond, he prods, “You okay?”

“You know exactly how I am.”

You leave the table and go outside. You don’t slam the front door, but you think you would, if you were a different person.

Jesse will be your only real friend until you go to college, and even though you love him, you cannot help but hate this truth, hate hate hate. Your social media accounts are ripe with followers, but it’s just the wretched evidence of how many times you bonded long enough for them to feel bad deleting you. Thousands of ghosts of the friendships that never were.

You’re afraid if you stay on the porch someone will come out to Talk to you, so you shuffle down the weed-dappled sidewalk.

At your last house, the neighbors had carefully coiffed shrubbery and plants that weren’t allowed to touch one another, stranded in clinical strips of shredded bark. You saw only one car that looked over ten years old—a restored classic that had a crank engine, sleeping in someone’s garage. Everyone was retired and they kept inviting you to church, pointedly, especially when you wore pink.

The place before that was an apartment complex where the neighbors smoked on the stairs and “forgot” to empty their ashcans, and everyone had cats but no one gave them flea meds, and it stunk like piss and despair any time you opened your tiny window.

This house is Goldilocks perfect, even if there aren’t enough bedrooms. You feel like you belong in this quirky cottage, nestled in a neighborhood quilted together by gradual changes in zoning laws, with a multitude of toys lying on the sidewalk and happy, stupid dogs snuffling at dilapidated fences. Everyone has an ugly vegetable garden, and sometimes there are signs that say “Take some!”

You almost walk to Freddy’s house—you know where his family’s mobile home is, resplendent in year-round Halloween decorations. But even if Jesse thinks it’s a good idea, even if Freddy miraculously feels the same, you know what your parents would think.

When you return, you overhear Mom and Dad whispering as you slink past their window. Even though you know you shouldn’t, you pause.

Mom: “…Keep this up, we just can’t.”

Dad: “But if we don’t, they’ll catch…”

Some indistinct words and then Mom again: “We never should have stolen…”

These words are abstract poetry, pretend-intrigue from a life you know your parents can’t possibly have, but these words are also the sharpest of their kind, and they stab deep into your thoughts.

You’re still wondering what it means, if they’re secretly on the run from the Mafia or if they’re Russian spies or maybe just playing a sex game (unhear, UNHEAR) when you clamber through the window into the room you share with Jesse.

There’s a plate of soggy pancakes sitting on the desk and a wet ring where there used to be a bottle of lemonade beside it.

Jesse sits on your bed, not his, sipping the bottle. “I got sick of waiting for you,” he says, as if that’s an apology, so you sit beside him while you eat, his arm and leg warm against yours.

“You know Mom and Dad love their jobs,” Jesse says in a low voice. “All these kids we’ve met, their parents hate their jobs. They argue all the time.”

You shake your head. “They could keep doing it,” you say, even as you wonder again if they really are travel writers, if they used to be bank robbers or if they’re still hackers, assassins, recruiting for a cult. “They could travel, and write about it, and just come home in between.”

“We might be old enough to drive, but someone would still call CPS,” he says. To change the subject, he hands you a sack from under your pillow, and you already know what’s in it, because you can feel the cool cylinders through the paper.

“This town will remember us. Blue or yellow?” he says, and for a moment, you stare at the spray paint and think about explaining yourself to the deputies or getting hit by a train or just not being good at tagging.

Screw it. “Yellow.”

Jesse pulls on a black hoodie — your black hoodie, but you keep a spare because you’ve known him for sixteen years — and you follow him out the window.

Jesse climbs down first, unafraid of the dozens of spiders with tangled webs that have beaten you to decorating the train trestle. Even at dusk, the metal beams are warm from hours of sun. Your palms sweat, but the river is only twenty feet below—if you fall you’ll get wet, and it’ll ruin your phone, but you’ll survive.

Jesse paints two dragons 69ing, borrowing your yellow for the flames that cover the genitalia. You concentrate on writing your initials in bubble letters. They’re the same as Jesse’s, so it’ll double as a signature for his piece.

The secret is, you don’t mind being you. You used to casually mention that you’re not as popular, not as fun, not as adventurous, but people acted like you might be suicidal. Now you know: They don’t want to be a shadow, so they think you don’t, either.

You’re still painting when Jesse invites you to jump in with him. The water below is slow and an unappetizing brown, and you’re about to offer to hold his clothes for him when he’s already leaping off, can in hand. He sprays it in the air as he goes down with a whoop.

He splashes in, bobs back up—and a few feet behind him, something else rises. A discarded foam Halloween skull, with skeleton hands? No, a live thing, like a human but paler, with bulbous, dark eyes and rust-colored nails on the tips of its too-long fingers. It reaches toward the trestle. Toward Jesse.

Its thin fingers are only a couple feet away, and you know if you yell at Jesse he will turn and look instead of just swimming away, so you throw the can of paint as hard as you can. It spins through the air and crashes into the thing’s face, which dents like a boiled egg before spewing black bubbles.

It sinks immediately, but you imagine it under the surface, reaching for Jesse with those bony fingers…

You yell at Jesse to get out of the water with more authority in your voice than you’ve ever used. He complies and nimbly jumps up the bank, then runs along the rails straight toward you, as if he thinks you’re the one who needs help.

You clamber up onto the top of the trestle before he can reach you, leaving only a JR without the Z, because you need to get Jesse home.

You grab his hand, his wet sleeve partially covering his palm and squelching under your grip, and run.

He doesn’t ask questions-he probably assumes you’re just chickening out—and you let him.

When the two of you reach the end of your street, you slow. Red and blue lights blink with lazy regularity in front of the quirky cottage, and there are shadows on the lawn.

Everyone is furious until they see that Jesse is wet, and he uses it to smooth things over. “We went for a walk and I fell off the park bridge,” he says, and even though that’s a whole mile from where you were, and the water there is much shallower, they buy it because Jesse exhales white lies as easily as he inhales air.

“Please, let’s all just go to bed,” Mom says, and you let yourself be shepherded into the house, but you don’t let go of Jesse’s hand, and even though he gives you a curious Look, he allows it.

The deputy shakes your parents’ hands, and they’re all smiles until they shut the door.

Mom catches sight of a strand of weed draped over Jesse’s shoulders, and as she draws it away, you see it’s actually many strands of waterweeds that have been woven into a necklace. There’s a white stone in the center, the size of a pea.

“Where were you?” Mom’s voice is thick and wrong.

Jesse smiles placatingly. “I told you—”

“Did someone who looked like a model lure you away?” Mom demands. “The devil never looks like the devil—”

“Did you follow music?” Dad interrupts. “Or a beautiful light?”

The Look you and Jesse exchange this time is mutual, because Mom balances her checkbook nightly before she goes to bed while Dad falls asleep playing the uncool kinds of videogames, and they both shop at Sears and are afraid to eat sushi because it’s raw. They’re painfully ordinary, until this very moment, when they are insane.

Mom looks down and notices that you and Jesse are still holding hands. Her face crumples and she joins Dad, who is already crying. “We’ll talk about this later. Don’t leave this goddamned house again, do you understand?”

Jesse inhales, as if he’s about to ask questions or argue, but you tighten your grip and lead him to your room.

“What the hell is wrong with them?” Jesse asks, and you almost tell him what you heard, that maybe your parents are on the run.

That you’re not sure what they stole, but you’re starting to think you might know who wants it back. You open up your laptop and type in a few things, things you never thought you’d be saying to Google, but it’s “lady in water with teeth” that gets convincing results.

Before you can tell Jesse, he whispers your name and points at the window sill. Someone has nailed the window shut, not neat, but messy, with so many roofing nails crammed together that they are splitting the wood.

“Maybe they’re on drugs,” Jesse says. “Like a mid-life crisis kind of thing.”

“I don’t think so,” you say. You share the fruits of your eavesdropping, the feet glimpsed in the hallway, and the true story of what happened at the trestle.

“I think it was a… a jenny greenteeth,” you say, and your lips feel like a chicken must feel when it shits out an egg. The words are so foreign, they stretch your ability to say them to the person you love most. “It’s… a faery. Mom and Dad must have stolen from them.”

Jesse shrugs, but you can see everything in the way he avoids your eyes. Your stomach clenches in a ball, and you are about to cry like Mom and Dad.

Maybe you are going crazy. Jesse’s never been perfect, but he’s always been right. No regrets, extraordinarily confident in his momentary cruelties and sudden gifts, strangely innocent and canny all at once.

“We’re not twins,” you whisper. You don’t mean to say it aloud, but it spills out, because you’re so used to telling him everything.

“I’m going to shower,” Jesse says, and you beg him to leave the door open, so you can be sure he’s still there, that they haven’t managed to take him.

But when he shuts the door, for the first time ever, the lock clicks.

You drift off in spite of yourself, because for over an hour you have been using every available neurochemical to process this day, and now you feel like a papery exoskeleton.

When you wake again, you aren’t sure why. It’s not dark, but when you pass your hand over the screen, your phone swears it’s 12:01 a.m.

After a moment, you realize the light isn’t coming in through the window—the light is standing just inside the window, a slender figure in robes made of moonlight. Their—her?—hair is the same ghostly pallor as her skin, and her eyes are the glossy, wet red-black of movie blood.

“How’d you get past the iron nails?” you ask, because in your groggy state, this is the first question you have.

“I have ways,” the figure responds, and her voice is seed pods rattling in an autumn wind.

“You can’t have him,” you say, and you glance toward Jesse, who is predictably sound asleep, one hand still curled around Mimmussy, the tiger he’s had since he was a baby.

The faery pulls the moonlight around her shoulders, as if it were a blanket, and settles onto the edge of your bed. The springs barely compress, as if she weighs no more than a stack of towels.

“Why not?”

“Because he’s my brother and I love him.”

“Even though everyone likes him better?”

You snatch the salt shaker from the bedstand and flick it toward the folds of light and the wet eyes.

The faery’s horrible shriek is muted, as if it’s happening under a blanket. The light folds in on itself and blinks out.

Now you can’t sleep. You lie in bed and stare at Jesse drooling on his pillow, his dark lashes stark against his cheeks.

You imagine life without him, without lying to cover up his antics, without being able to coast on his social skills, without someone who knows sixteen years’ worth of your feelings, failures, triumphs, and in-jokes.

It smells like sausage in the morning, and when you and Jesse sit down at this dining room table for the last time, you find a breakfast banquet.

Jesse, who inconveniently slept through your guest last night, stuffs his face with sausages and omelet and begins talking about the new house’s lake access and how he’d like to learn to kayak.

“A person in glowing robes came into our room last night and threatened us,” you say calmly, as you slice into the single sausage on your plate. “I salted them.”

The air is heavy, and it feels like you’re stealing silence with every quiet breath.

“Good job,” Mom finally says.

“Stop me if I get anything wrong.” You cut into your sausage again: perfectly even slices that fall into a line like collapsed dominoes. “Sixteen years ago, you had a baby. The faeries stole him and replaced him with a facsimile. The moment you saw him, you knew he wasn’t yours.”

You and your brother are supposedly identical, but no one has ever mistaken one of you for the other.

“The new one—it didn’t cry,” Mom whispers.

Your fork pins the omelet down like a dead butterfly, and your knife cleaves it, again and again, until there is a grid. “You never went on an expedition to the Andes. When you tell your hiking stories, they’re about a trek to Underhill, where you stole back your son—but you’d already fallen in love with the magic baby, the one that’s too perfect to possibly be real.”

Mom and Dad stare at you, and for the first time, you realize how exhausted they must be, running from mythical creatures for so many years. Had your parents ever thrown salt that smoked on a faery’s eyes or swung iron to leave bubbling welts against its flesh? Are they freelancers, or are they warriors?

“They are both perfect,” Dad says, and he closes his eyes, his voice croaking as if he’s never used it before.

Jesse drops his silverware. “Why are you all doing this? Do you hear yourselves? Please tell me this is a joke.”

“It’s not a joke, Jesse. Your parents are thieves.”

The new voice fills the kitchen, and you all turn to see a tall, pale person with a crust of enormous sparkling gems glued to her skull. Last night she wore robes of moonlight, and today she wears a red dress embellished with cicada husks. A cloak of shadow coils about her shoulders, rippling like water, wisps snaking off and disintegrating in the sunlight.

She wiggles her long, many-jointed fingers, and the cloak flows from her shoulders and pours across the floor, sprouting up into indistinct grey golems of many shapes and sizes. Each is translucent, but you can tell by the way the floor creaks under their weight that they are real.

Three of you reach for the salt shaker, but you are too slow; fingers of shadow grip all of your wrists and bind you to your chairs.

“At least we gave you something in return,” the faery goes on. “At least we were fair.”

Mom’s face purples, and you almost don’t recognize her as she snarls, “When I stepped inside your bone hut, you were smearing bird blood on his penis! Directly out of the bird!”

“You know nothing of our ways, mortal,” the faery snaps.

“You’re savages!” Dad roars. “Monsters.”

“Witches,” Mom adds. “We raised two good Christian boys, healthy Christian boys.”

“But what is good? Has my boy been given the leisure to learn a place down to its very roots? To fall in love?”

“Shut your filthy animal mouth, he’s ours, HE’S OURS!” your father shrieks.

You feel like you’re in a car wreck, where you can see the other vehicle spinning towards yours, and there’s nowhere to go, just an impact to brace for. Some vehicular damage is permanent, can never be hammered out and painted smooth, just the way that you can never unhear your parents’ sick words.

You and Jesse share one mutual glance before his eyes wander up to the person who really made him. You wonder if he’s going to go, if he’s going to leave you.

Light refracts from the faery’s cap of gems, sending rainbow rays across your soggy cereal. Her gaze finds yours, not Jesse’s.

“Come with me, my child. You don’t belong here, and you never have.”

The words hang in the air, their meaning so colossal you have a hard time bending your perception into this new paradigm, one in which you are special and otherworldly.

How much would you have to love someone to become a fugitive for them, and what of the hollow-eyed parents whose children end up on milk cartons?

“Am I made of sticks and mud?” you ask.

“You will never again be what you once were,” the faery says. She might as well have said yes. She gestures toward you with pianist fingers. “Nothing binds you, child, for you are one of us. Make your choice.”

You ponder the alchemy that makes a live creature from organic detritus. About what must lie dormant inside you, like turtles sleeping under winter mud.

You wish away the cool grey fog-snakes, but not just from your own hands. You wish Jesse free.

“Thank you, Jasper,” the woman who pretended to be your mother says, but you don’t unbind her, and her face pinches when she realizes this.

“Don’t be ungrateful, Jasper. You have no idea what we saved you from. We Saved you.”

Jesse meets your eyes again, and everything is familiar and right for a tiny, iridescent moment in the sucking swamp of nonsense that has swallowed both of your lives. You know your brother, and your brother knows you.

“You guys kidnapped him,” Jesse says to your parents. “You literally stole a baby.”

Jesse grabs your hand in his, and it’s dry and firm. Yours is sweaty, but you squeeze back as you turn to face the faery.

“You made me as nothing more than an escape plan, so you could get away with a crime. How could you think I’d want to go with you?”

Jesse grabs your hand, and you squeeze back.

“Go ahead and keep our bank account full,” he says to your parents.

You meet the faery’s eyes. “You go ahead and leave us care packages on our porch.”

“We don’t want to see you, any of you. We need some time,” Jesse says, and it’s just what you wanted him to say.

As you walk out of the room, all of your parents begin arguing behind you. You slam and lock the door and pour salt over the carpet.

“Lake house?” Jesse asks, his eyes pleading. You loved this place, but you already knew Jesse would be your best friend until college, and you can hate hate hate it all you want, but you love love love your brother.

“Lake house,” you agree.

He throws a chair through the window, and even though you roll your eyes when he yells, “Dude, I’ve always wanted to do that!” you dutifully cover the jagged shards with a pile of bedclothes so neither of you cuts yourself on your way out.

Cory Skerry divides his workday between writing the impossible, illustrating the outrageous, and assisting individual authors and small presses who want their manuscripts to exceed reader expectations. When his current meatshell begins to decay, he’d like science to put his brain inside a giant killer octopus body, with which he’ll be very responsible and not even slightly shipwrecky. Pinky swear. For more, visit inkshark.net.

Fae & Strange & Beautiful

Lake Mouth, by casey hannan

My mother walks up dizzy from the pier with her mouth open and her arms out and dripping. The lizards on the boardwalk drop their blue tails to get out of her way.

I’m on the patio swing saying it’s a tough living dyeing my own wool and spinning it into fancy yarn. Peggy tells me to shut up and worry about my mother. My mother vomits algae on the patio, and I get worried.

My mother says, “Don’t you kids look. It’s just my vertigo.”

The kids are me and a few old women in shorts. The old women push me inside the lake house and block the sliding door with their clotted bodies. I sit on the floor and trace the black veins from leg to leg through the glass. The veins are black because they’re full of ants. If the old women get cut, the ants will escape, and the old women won’t have anything to carry their granulated blood to their hearts.

My mother married into this family. She doesn’t have the right blood for the lake. Linda told my mother how a ghost would swim up in her if she went out on that raft, but my mother comes from country people. They learn by doing. My mother is learning right now. A ghost from the lake is caught in my mother’s stomach, and it’s teaching her what it means to be a stubborn individual.

A cloud of mosquitoes blacks out my mother’s hair. Sandra looks at her phone.

She says, “I’m calling it.”

Linda says, “This whole situation makes me want to spit. Get those mosquitoes out of her hair. Those mosquitoes don’t get to be part of this.”

I knock on the glass. It hurts. My knuckles are sharp, and my skin is thin. It’s something about my parents’ combined genetics. I’m hardy and fragile at the same time. I bleed at the joints when I make a fist. My blood isn’t ants. It’s just blood. Before my father died, he taught me to squeeze that blood into jars and keep it the right temperature for if I need it later.

He said, “You can do more with blood than it says on the box.”

He’s right. I’ve used my blood to dye wool the perfect shade of brown.

Peggy hugs open a Christmas tin and eats a cookie.

She says, “Your poor mother.”

Peggy was made to stay behind the glass with me. Her sisters are out there telling my mother how not all dizziness is vertigo. My mother’s screaming a story about the first lake people.

Sandra says, “Someone should record this. I don’t think we have this one.”

Linda says, “I’m not going to be involved in that. This woman has her rights to privacy.”

Peggy gives me a cookie and says, “Your mother will be fine. Eat this cookie, then we’ll go out front and play a game.”

I eat the cookie. It has raisins. I can’t digest raisins at the lake. My stomach turns them to gravel. I puke the cookie into a red plastic cup.

Peggy says, “I know. The lake takes getting used to. My first time here, I found out I couldn’t whistle. We lost a puppy that way. He started running toward the lake, and I tried to whistle for him, but nothing came out. He ran right across the water on a bridge of snakes.”

The lake is a man-made finger of blood-black water on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. It’s a culture shock like when I was in Australia and used the toilet paper to the last square. The last square was glued to the roll. I cried because that’s not how it is in America. In America, the last square comes clean.

On the other side of the glass, my mother says, “Brother Bill Agnes dressed as an old woman and secured a place on a lifeboat. That was in April of 1912. Grandmother Will was born a year later to Sister Viv, a lapsed nun who made pies out of sawdust. All Sister Viv’s children were allergic to trees.”

Peggy reaches behind my ear and pulls back two lit cigarettes.

She says, “Let’s go play that game.”

Peggy and I go out on the front porch and sigh into rocking chairs. A noiseless fighter jet goes over the trees and unzips a formation of geese. There’s an Air Force base nearby. The geese crash in the yard and shit the sand to mayonnaise. Peggy says when she and Linda and Sandra were kids they would grab the geese by their necks and swing them over the house and into the lake. I think that’s a feat misremembered.

I tried grabbing a goose once, but the goose grabbed me instead. I had to climb a tree to get away. My hands got cut up on the bark. Sap fell into the deepest splits. My hands healed up bumpy, so now I have hard beads in my palms like a pearl necklace held and absorbed.

I thought the sap might have poisoned me because my fingernails started growing faster than normal, and I had this urge to scratch people. My mother would hug me, and I would pull up divots of skin from her back. One of those times, I pulled up a mole and its network of cancer. My mother let out a sound like a motorcycle.

I told her I was a poisonous monster because of the sap in my hands.

She said, “No, honey, look. I’ve got pencil lead in my neck from a thing that happened on accident, and your father says I’m good ’til I die.”

The boom of the fighter jet catches up to us a minute after the jet’s out of sight.

Peggy says, “That’s what ghosts sound like when they’re not sitting in your stomach. If you put your head down in the lake, you can hear the ghosts screaming like a really big shell put to your ear.”

I say, “I know what ghosts sound like. My father had a bad ghost take him over a few years ago.”

Peggy says, “I didn’t forget.”

I say, “You said something about a game.”

Peggy says, “Yeah, the game where we smoke these cigarettes and just shut up because there will be enough talking in the morning, and the geese want to talk now.”

The geese start honking. I yawn. Peggy looks at me like I’m ruining the moment. I yawn again but in my closed mouth. My eyes water like I might cry.

I’m the oldest of the younger cousins this year because Ashley, the real oldest cousin, had a baby, and the baby’s already doing that thing where he looks over Ashley’s shoulder at things that aren’t there.

“He sees spirits,” Ashley says when she calls to make sure we’re all still alive.

I tell Ashley my mother’s been hit by a long-winded ghost. Ashley says that’s a shame and a tradition. She says to give everyone her love. I tell her blood is love at the lake.

She says, “You know what I mean.”

Ashley didn’t tell me being the oldest cousin came with responsibilities. I have to get the younger cousins drunk but not too drunk. One of the old women gives me 50 bucks to buy her some cheap bourbon. She tells me to keep the change. I spend the change on vodka for the younger cousins. Peggy helps me pour the glasses.

I say, “This is weird.”

Peggy says, “They’ll need it to sleep in a house that’s always talking.”

Peggy and I decide to split the rest of the bottle. This would be a good time to cry and ask about my mother, but I know ghosts don’t give up easy. I look out the window. There’s too much fog to see the lake anymore.

Peggy says, “That’s the body of the ghost. If you go out tonight, try not to breathe it in.”

Peggy coughs some ants into the bottle.

I say, “My mother won’t talk again, will she?”

Peggy says, “Well, your mother’s staunch, so she’ll probably try.”

I call the younger cousins into the kitchen, and they get their drinks and head to the basement. Peggy says I should go with them.

She hands me the bottle and says, “Don’t you leave this shit vodka with me.”

The stairs to the basement are covered in carpet that’s always a little wet. I run down the stairs, and it feels like I’m running on rum cake. The younger cousins are sitting around a card table and flicking poker chips at each other.

Matt says, “You know what you do with these?”

I say, “They stand for money.”

Matt says, “No. They stand for America. This one’s red, this one’s white, and this one’s blue.”

Matt takes a drink and starts coughing.

Lee says, “I know. This one’s really strong.”

Katie says, “Yeah, this one too.”

All the younger cousins take cat sips and talk about how they can’t wait to get out of wherever they are. Lee’s the only one who isn’t a blood cousin. He’s the neighbor. His teeth cross like swords. Katie has a thing for messed-up teeth. She’s been all over Lee since we got here. She texts me and asks if I think it’s OK for her to keep going. I tell her it would be fine if Lee weren’t gay.

Peggy yells down for me to move her car closer to the house so it’ll be easier for her to pack tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow. She laughs and shakes a pill bottle. The other old women come running.

Lee says, “I’ll go with you.”

Katie stands up and pulls down on the legs of her shorts.

Lee says, “Just me and your cousin on this one.”

I say, “Yeah, there might be snakes out,” which is stupid because we all know snakes take to the water at night. They float on top of the lake in loose sex balls, roaring like a gas leak in a small town. Every morning, there are clusters of fresh eggs knocking the pier legs. Linda and Sandra cut the eggs open and use the undeveloped snake babies for fishing bait.

Katie says, “OK, guys. What. Ever.”

Lee and I hit the gravel. I try not to breathe the ghost fog. Lee trips over himself like he got drunk off three sips of vodka. I tell him to keep his mouth shut and his nose shut and just breathe with his mind.

He says, “No can do, but I’ll race you to the car.”

Lee grabs my hand, and we run through the fog to Peggy’s car where we suck in the clean air and pass it between our mouths. My tongue counts Lee’s crooked teeth. I want to ask if his teeth hurt arranged like that, but my mouth and his mouth are the same for a while. I can taste where I smoked a cigarette earlier, and so can Lee. He sucks on my lips to get it all out.

Lee tells me he’s moving to California to sit in a chair on the beach and talk about what he believes. He doesn’t know what he believes yet. He thinks if he starts talking, he’ll know.

Lee asks me what I believe.

I say, “I believe my mother still has a lot to say.”

Lee says we don’t believe the same things.

I ask Lee if he’s met any of the ghosts from the lake. He says no. I take his shirt off and say, “I’ll show you a ghost in the morning.”

The fog is lifting. Lee swallows all the spit in his mouth.

“No,” he says, “you won’t.”

My mother is sitting on the pier in the morning, and the ghost has left her. I can see her skull through her skin. She says it’ll pass when she eats, but she’s not hungry.

The water under us is black and iridescent as motor oil. I tell my mother I’m not hungry either. She says I smell like I ate all night. She coughs, and no algae comes out, but her breath is still green.

Lee comes down the boardwalk, and I say, “Mom, this is my special friend.”

My mother grabs a post to stand. I see all her veins at once like purple lightning.

She says, “Don’t do this to me right now.”

Peggy yells that breakfast is ready. My mother says she needs to try to eat. I say we’ll be up soon.

Lee and I get on our bellies on the pier. We look in the water for ghosts.

I spit in the lake, and the lake spits back.

Casey Hannan was born in West Virginia, raised in central Kentucky, and has lived and worked in Kansas City since 2003. He graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2007 and has continued to develop his literary and visual art practices in tandem. He is the author of two books, Mother Ghost (Tiny Hardcore Press) and The Three Woes (Spork Press) and can be found at caseyhannan.com.

 

Shimmer #46, November 2018, 2100 words

Other Mouths:

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms

The Wombly, by K.L. Morris


Streuobstwiese, by Steve Toase

Kate’s been out on the roof again. She’s drawn her finger through salt the color of wood ash, the sigils barely holding together on the terracotta slope of the tiles. The gutters are clogged with yellow fat, and dead hares whose eyes are gilded in gold leaf. Across the valley a field of barley whitens with mold and blight.

I coax her back through the casement and hold her while she whispers curse words into the damp cotton of my shoulder. Her breath smells of bonfire smoke. She does not sleep.

I know where the artist’s bones are. Deep in the clay below the Gravenstein apple trees. Root-wrapped and smeared with grease. The fruit tastes slightly of marrow and damp cloth. It is not an unpleasant flavor.

Something has been killing the hoopoe, leaving their plucked bodies in the orchard’s long grass. Their scorched beaks have been torn free and sealed tight with honey. Kate does not come down here often, though she can see the trees from the house. I pick up the corpses, the loose feathers, and drop them into a burlap sack, the one I normally use for harvested fruit. Later, I bury their small bodies in shallow graves.

“I didn’t mean to,” Kate says, and I know she’s telling the truth. “He scrubbed out the salt. I don’t know why he scrubbed out the salt.”

I look at the line going around the house. A single footprint has worn through the white powder, tread still visible. He lies on the corner of the porch, eyes wide and blinded with mold erupting through his jaw and across his tongue. Even though the cartilage in his throat has turned to dust, he still tries to speak.

“You need to finish what you’ve started. It’s not right to leave him like this. To leave him for me to deal with,” I say, but even as I finish speaking, I know she can’t. She never can. We keep two large apple presses behind the house. I use the second one, and later burn his uniform down at the far end of the orchard. The wind will carry the char of smoke down the valley, away from us and the town.

Kate sits, her back against the pollard’s bark while she knits. I watch bees flit from blossom to blossom. The day is calm and bright, her needles clattering against each other. I’m glad she’s come down amongst the trees. The air is full of the scent of fresh grass, crushed by our footsteps. I force the scions into the cleft cut in the rootstock, take out the chisel and seal the graft with wax from a single red candle.

Afterwards, I’m not sure how she distracted me to get at the tree, but she managed to. The glyphs are small and precise, carved with the tip of her knitting needles. I know she has good intentions. She sees the gaps in the world, and needs to close them. I’m grateful. How can I not be, but I wish she would tell me. Speak to me. I dig up the tree and the surrounding soil. There are still unburnt scraps of uniform on the warm embers. I push them deep into the flames as the dirt-covered roots start to smolder.

We are low on food, so I take some of last year’s crop to the village to sell.

“Had a bonfire?” Carmen in the grocers asks. I know what she wants to know. I stay silent. I’ve hidden most of the scrying ingredients in the house, but Kate is inventive. Instinctive. I can feel her watching even when she isn’t.

“Burning old scrub,” I say, putting the basket on the counter. There will be extra cash, too, but I will stash that away for the winter.

“We’ve seen the hut again, Rachel. Glowing between the trees,” Bill says. He stands by the window and does not turn as he speaks to me. I have not seen the hunting lodge appear, but it does not surprise me.

I notice the clattering first. Hundreds of barbed fishhooks fall from the sky onto the road outside. This is not Fortean, but a threat. I step outside, and the downfall pauses long enough for me to get to the car before intensifying once again to trap Carmen and Bill inside the store. I see their faces pressed against the lettered glass.

The sky glitters. Kate has done it for me. Setting the clouds on fire and letting them fall like forgotten fireworks.

“This won’t last, you know,” she says, slipping her arms around my waist. “We just need to make the best of it.”

The streamers of light twitch as they hit mist rising from the river.

“Already fading,” I say, and she sighs, unhooking her fingers and walking away.

I arrive back from the orchard and cannot get into the house. The porch is covered in wax bees, their wings fluttering against the rotting wood. The day is warm, and the wax soon melts. The insects inside fall to the ground, suffocated. I try not to step on them, but there are too many, and they rasp as I make my way inside. The hives will be empty now, and many of the trees will not fruit.

The artist only ever gave Kate one piece of art. An old installation never taken by a gallery. She keeps it in the cellar, no other room big enough to display it. On the day he delivered it, he pulled up the lane in a battered white van. With our help he dragged out the hospital gurney, ants and beetles already suffocating in the thick smear of honey across the metal.

After he left, Kate would eat the sweetened insects, dedicating each death to a goddess whose name only she knew.

In the morning I scour the river bank, collecting torn shrapnel from a plane’s fuselage. The registration number is scorched beyond reading. There is no one to tell.

I take Kate by the hand and she leads me down to the orchard, though I am the one who asked if we could go. Paperweights of dew slide from the grass, glisten on the skin of her bare feet, and for a moment I am transfixed. We reach the orchard, and it is worse. Even Kate gasps. The elm trees are no longer seedlings, their granite branches resting on the crowns of the apple trees, crushing the Berlepsch and Weirouge to pulp.

“There are two thousand,” she says. She reaches up and plucks a leaf, lets it fall. Silica in the rock glistens like dying stars.

“There need to be zero. They are killing the apple trees.”

I do not ask where the stone has come from. Whether she grifted it from some family quarry in a nearby village, or erupted and cooled a volcano far through the earth. I think I can smell bone in the rock. I do not ask.

Someone has been to the house. Aftershave lingers around the porch, a light reek of citrus and alcohol. I let my hand rest on the door handle, peering through the frosted glass for any bundles in the hallway that do not look like they belong. Kate is sitting on the stairs.

“The visitors went away,” she says. Her knuckles are red-raw where she’s torn skin to lace. I nod. It was lucky they did. I know what she was planning to do. I’m glad she didn’t feel she had to.

She has found the artist’s cap and is wearing it, long hair bunched up inside. Sat in the dark. The room is heavy with the reek of sweat-stained wool and all his lies.

When he was alive, he never took it off. The thing with lies is they have power. He knew that and wore them like ribbons.

Kate uses them to create other things. These falsehoods smell of mildew. I glance at her arm in the little light coming from the window. She is sprouting jackal fur in the crook of her elbow. I reach into my pocket for the tweezers, ready to pluck it out hair by hair. Root by bloodstained root. It’s the only way, or it will spread and she will be his by morning.

Later that night I take the hat down to the meadow and try to burn it to ash. The flames dance across the weave. I wedge it into the crook of a pear tree. I know it will be back in the attic by morning.

They’re not taking our apples in town anymore. They say that the crop is tainted. Kate wants to come to the town, to support me. I can’t let her. The way they’ll react to her. The way she’ll react to them.

I wake up in the middle of the night and go to her room. She’s sitting on the edge of her bed, window open. I can hear flies buzzing across the fruit as their offspring burrow through apple skin. The scent is sweet and warm and collapsing. I walk across to shut the window and she says nothing.

“You need to stop,” I say.

“What will happen, will happen,” she replies. Her face is turned toward the floor, shadowed and hidden. I cannot tell her reaction. There is a scent of burning willow and pine. Sap bubbles out of her fingertips and drips to the floor.

I tell Kate that after enough blossoms have fallen in the meadow, the artist will find his own way back through the soil to knock on the door. She asks about all the wasps that drink themselves to death on apple-rot cider, slipping between worm castings and mole burrows. I do not have an answer for her that is not a lie, so instead I tell her a truth: Wasps never stay under the earth for long, dead or not, before they steal skeletal leaves for wings and return.

We drive into the town. It’s the first time Kate has left home in five years. She sits in the back, the window closed even though the day is one of the hottest of the year. I can smell myself on the recycled air inside the car.

I turn us down the main street. People are sitting under parasols, drinking ice-crowded drinks and eating chemical- flavored ice cream.

“They’re staring,” Kate says, shrinking down in her seat.

“They’re not,” I lie. “It’s far too warm to pay attention to anyone else.”

But she does not believe me. My lies are brittle children, and they do not live long around her.

The beetles are small and black and crawl out from inside the doors, up over the car’s windows, scratching the glass with their feet. Soon they obscure the view outside, the temperature inside climbing as the sunlight bakes their carapaces.

I put on the wipers to clear the windscreen, but there are too many, and they smear as they are crushed. I slow down. I can hear them crawling along the petrol pipes, drowning in the fuel and filling the tank. Their dying bodies clog the air vents, sealing us from the world.

I could explain that this spectacle of death is draping us in attention. That people who had not noticed our progress through the town center are now leaving their houses to watch. To stare. I do not. Cars are not the only things that can be suffocated with dying insects. We abandon it beside the road and walk home through the orchard.

“We need to make the circle bigger,” she says. I am too distracted by looking after the fruit to pay any attention. To give her any attention.

The salt crosses the track up to the house, crystals fresh. Along the ditch are two rows of salt pans, evaporating in the sun, stone tacky with clots.

There are two people on the back porch. She has slit their throats with sharpened oak leaves. Wrapped them in blankets that do not cover their injuries. Through the fabric I see bones like larch poles snapped and splintered. The last of their blood, the little she did not harvest for crystals, has seeped across the floor. Flies from the rotten apples sip their fill.

“What was I supposed to do?” she says, I take her arm and lead her back in. Her hands are stained with yellow pollen. I do not know which flower it comes from, but I wash it down the sink.

“It was very quick,” she says as I scrub her hands with the nail brush. She winces as the bristles catch her knuckle scabs. I say nothing.

I did not want to leave her for the night, but accountants don’t come where we live. Carmen and the others must have seen my car go. Took their chance to try and stop Kate. They did not succeed. From a distance it looks like the visitors got together to help manage the orchard, but Carmen and the others aren’t pruning the tree. Accelerated branch growth has woven its way through their veins, splitting their muscles from their bones. Their teeth will be the fruit harvested in autumn. I find Kate amongst the windfall, arms around her knees.

“We need to make the circle bigger. All the way around the fields,” she says, but I know that no salt circle will ever be big enough to keep the world out. Maybe we’re two faces of the same monster, me and her. I hold her close and ignore the sound of shattering jaws from the canopy above. I lace my fingers through hers and lead her back to the house.

Kate has covered all the furniture in calico, thick and muffled. Mice tug the fibers loose and hoard them behind the wooden slats in the walls. I stand in the middle of the room and look around at the chairs, the sofa, the cupboards. The piano. She brushes past me and sits down on the stool. Her hair is curled with honey that drips down the back of her dress. I try not to gag at the sweetness. She rests her hands on the covered keys and underneath, hammers strike taut, muffled strings.

“When he made the original one, he meant it to be silent.”

I’ve barely finished speaking before I know I’ve made a mistake. She stands and walks over, placing each foot with grace. Running a finger through her hair, she coats my lips with honey. The sugar turns to skin and I have no mouth. She returns to the piano stool and continues to play.

Later that night she wakes me and runs a fingernail across my face. The mouth is not mine, her memory is not that precise, but I am glad to be able to speak.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and I want to answer, but even with my speech returned I cannot bring myself to reassure her.

Wilted blossoms fall around us as we stand in the middle of the orchard.

“They’re dying,” I say, and she nods. The trees can take only so much grief. Absorb so much death before their roots wither in the ground.

“I can make them come back,” she says, and I appreciate her offer, because it is truly given, and comes from sadness, which is her most powerful ingredient, but I shake my head.

“Even if they do, there are no bees,” I say, and before she offers to fix them too, I hug her, and we sag against each other like two trees planted too close.

There are routes she does not know. Routes I have masked from her with honeysuckle and knots of uncarded wool buried in old lemonade bottles, the necks sealed with glass marbles and apple pips. I buried them long ago, pressing them down into the dirt of the path, below stiles and between hawthorn trees. The fog of them gets lost in the fog of her thoughts.

The basket is heavy, and split-willow rods rub away the skin of my forearms. Kate is having a good day.

“I can come and help, Rachel,” she says. She never uses my name. There are only two of us. It sounds crystallised on her tongue.

“I’m fine,” I say. “I’ll be back for dinner. I have my lunch in here.”

She smiles, and I do not notice at the time how brittle it is.

I should not have drawn her attention to the basket. There is food in there, but not for lunch. Enough to get me beyond the hills.

The route is blocked with brass rods running from thorned branch to thorned branch. She is sitting on the fence, wrapped in calico. The trees reach out and entangle me before I can move. Blood beads along my arms and hardens to ladybirds that scratch far more than the thorns.

“I couldn’t carry on,” I say.

She nods and strokes my arm between the wounds to give me ease.

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

I wake up in the fruit cellar, lying on a metal gurney. It is dented beneath my spine, and I cannot get comfortable. Across the room she has arranged the artist’s bones, a pile of wet soil on the concrete where she has sifted for his fingertips. Without moving, she drags the gurney toward her. The hare is nestled in her lap, blank-eyed, gold-leaf crumpled against its lashes.

“I won’t be him, you know,” I say.

“I know,” she says, smiling. “I will have the best of both of you.”

This is a lie she speaks with the full knowledge of its nature.

His skeleton doesn’t quite fit in my skin. Splinters of bone embroider my muscles, which are too short to stretch across the new femurs. My own are a fine powder coating my diaphragm and lungs. Already, infections are spreading from the clay she did not clean from the time-pitted surface of his spine. Vertebrae are in the wrong place. I do not know if this is intentional or carelessness. There is pain, but I cannot scream. She has stitched my mouth shut to stop my face slipping from his skull. She has kept my hands free to make the new artworks he never finished. The fingerbones are too long for me to hold the tools she has prepared. Soon she will strip me back to her artist’s bones, and I will be little more than fat clogging the drains.

Steve Toase lives in Munich, Germany. His work has appeared in Lackington’s, Aurealis, Not One Of Us, Cabinet des Feés and Pantheon Magazine among others. In 2014, “Call Out,” first published in Innsmouth Magazine, was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year vol. 6.  You can keep up to date with his work via tinyletter.com/stevetoase, facebook.com/stevetoase1, www.stevetoase.wordpress.com and on Twitter @stevetoase.

3100 words, Shimmer #46, November 2018

Other Orchards:

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms

All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray, by Gwendolyn Kiste

Gone to Earth, by Octavia Cade

The Witch in the Woods Falls in Love a Third Time, by Kate Lechler

 

Here’s what nobody told you yet: I loved both those girls.

The story as you probably heard it goes, once upon a time, a witch met your great-great-grands in the woods, blessed the good sister, cursed the bad. The sweet one went on to marry some jumped-up slick-faced city boy, while the sorry one lost herself in the woods and was probably eaten by a cougar.

That’s true as far as it goes, but the truer truth is that I intended neither boon nor bane. Since I split from my mother like a sprout from a seed, I had never laid eyes on another human ’til they came. When they did, the only words I said were words of love, declarations of devotion. How they twisted when they passed my lips, I couldn’t say.

The first sister came by my hollow on a fool’s errand, looking for water from a dried-up spring. I should’ve stayed hidden but when I saw her—petal-soft, virtue-bright—I filled like a cup with longing for something I never knew. I told her so.

Shaking like a spooked rabbit, she tried to talk. Instead she choked up garnets and emeralds, spat spring beauties and azaleas. Her quartz-cracked lips brushed, bleeding, against bearded iris the way I wished she’d brush against me.

She didn’t brush against me, not even as she scrambled towards the road heading to town. And I never got her name to call it after her.

A while later the next one showed up, champing at the bit for the same blessing. Alive with greed and cunning—for fame, for riches, for a better-looking fellow than her sister’s—but mostly just alive, a smile coiled in the corner of her mouth. I knew I should stay quiet but I burned like foxfire, cold-hot all at once at the look of her. My words this time laid eggs in her belly, slithered up her throat.

Last I saw of her, the blunt head of a kingsnake was slipping past the muscle of her mouth, making its way into the open air.

I loved them so much, they choked on it.

Believe it or not, I own a Bible. I know what the Good Book says. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” But I learned that, god or not, the word infects. Say the words too hasty—”I like you,” “you’re beautiful,” “stay”—and the knowledge bleeds through the back of time, altering anything that came before. Like gunpowder in a mine, it detonates in the brain and body, a tingling at the base of the spine, the soft hairs of the arm raised up in surprise.

Love lays its eggs in the lover, too. Like a worm no thicker than a hair can crawl inside the brain of a cricket, take a creature made for jumping and singing and make him head for water and drown himself. Love takes hold of the mind and sets a new course, steering from a cabin of meat and hormones, locked in on the object of desire. I could no more stay away from those girls than an ant could leave the scent trail leading to its nest.

Is there anyone who can remain unchanged in the face of love?

After those girls left me, love turned inward, cancer-like, became hard, slick, spongy. I waited in the hollow like a seed in an airless cave, while love bubbled up, bloomed out, snaked through my guts, squatted in my throat.

My body betrayed me. The only use for my eyes was looking at theirs. The only use for my nose, smelling them. My fingers itched to touch their arms, their cheeks, their perfect thighs. Love tore at me until I fell apart, a clatter and mess of bits that didn’t match any more.

Now you.

I don’t know how long it’s been. You’re the third to arrive—great-great-grand-niece-or-other of the two before—when you park your blue hatchback up the road and stalk through the undergrowth towards that spring. At dusk, you set up camp in the hollow, and I watch the neat bones of your wrists as you tie down the rainfly, read the murmur on your lips as you hum along with the battery-powered contraption you brought.

I do not come out.

Love presses words under my tongue, into the soft roof of my mouth. I wake with them tangled in my hair, pressed to my cheek like crystallized tears. I crouch like a waxcap mushroom, gilled with love, breathing clouds of spores, hoping for one of them to root down into the thin skin on the back of your hand, to come up spelling desire.

If I knew writing was safe, I might chance it. Drop verses through your day like maple keys. A sonnet folded like a flower peeping from under the edge of your tent. Haikus rain-slicked to your windshield.

But I learned the price of speaking long ago.

Kate Lechler’s work has appeared in Fireside Fiction, Podcastle, and Kaleidotrope, among other places. She teaches British literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., where she lives with her husband, a cat, a ghost-dog, and seven fish. When she’s not at school, you can find her sitting on a lawn chair in her carport, writing about genetically-engineered unicorns and dragons.

850 words, published November 2018, Shimmer #46

Which Witch:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien

Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport

Rotkäppchen, by Emily McCosh

artwork by Emily McCosh
artwork by Emily McCosh

 

The wolf arrives the same day Adeline buries Hugo on the edge of the woods, her boy’s grave forming a raft of upturned earth between two trees, just far enough from the fens that he won’t be drowning. She watches two young village men blanket him in icy soil. His shotgun leans against a nearby tree. His hunting knife is tucked under her shirt, against her back. Bone handle followed by colder steel. A second spine to hold her upright.

Behind her, the villagers’ thoughts cover her like a summer heat, so oppressive and consistent she drowns in it. Bears, bears, bears. In winter. Bears.

Her daughter-in-law, Irene, seems to wither under the unspoken worry, all the eyes on her and Adeline’s granddaughter. Adeline touches the other woman’s hand but doesn’t speak—they’ve never been close—and thinks vaguely of wolves. The pressure of their paws on the undergrowth. The heat of their breath. She hums Hugo’s name silently in the back of her throat and holds her granddaughter like a shield before her.

There is a wisp of fur in the long shadows of evening that follows her home.

Her house is not much like her own grandmother’s, but there are several oaks hemming it like old giants. She cracks the window to her bedroom, letting leaves and the occasional leftover acorns find their way onto her floor. Winter air creeps in. She doesn’t sleep. Her body is cold stone under the covers, her face feeling liable to crack.

Some of Hugo’s things are packed between the night-table and bedpost, smelling of pine, sharp and sure. His coat, she has laid across her chest. Like cracked mud or dying bark, a shield of brown fabric against the night. Adeline concentrates on crying and can’t manage it.

When she smells the creature outside, she turns her face into her pillow and refuses to acknowledge the fact that there are paws and teeth and the heady scent of the woods on the other end of the door. Her granddaughter is a mile out of the trees, nearer to town. She hardly knows the girl, and her mother even less. Hugo left these woods for a time, returning with a woman foreign but kind, a daughter in his arms. Adeline loves the child, but hardly knows her granddaughter’s eyes.

Her husband is in the dirt, as her son is now. The house feels quiet, though it’s sheltered only her for years.

Does her granddaughter sleep? There must be many village men awake and on guard against the winter bear that took Hugo. Rifles across their knees, coffee warming their bellies. She must be safe for now. Adeline wonders if the little girl feels the other, not-quite-here things in the woods.

There are paws on her doorstep. This she knows rather than hears, and knows it until she peels back the blankets and puts her bare feet on the wooden floor. Quiet as can be managed, she puts a match to the lantern and lifts the latch on the door. A halo of light cuts across the porch. She doesn’t wish to look long at the illuminated beast waiting for her. She is alone, but not in need of company. Words stick in her throat for too long

“Come to tell me my boy’s dead, you’re a day too late.” Her voice cracks. “Buried him in your woods.”

The wolf is quite larger than the ones that roam in packs, thinking of hunger, hunger, the trees, and sometimes the moon and her stars. They are indifferent to men and women, take only spare moments here and there to be curious of children. They are not this. This reminds her of her childhood. The hands of her grandmother. The whisper of a new cloak around her ankles. Teeth. A hunter’s ax.

Hunter. Hugo. Adeline shakes herself.

She wishes to close the door. Hugo’s shotgun is beside her own at the door. Her limbs protest sudden movements and long walks these days, her eyes don’t like the dark, but her hands know the work of the weapon. Deep down, she knows the shotgun isn’t needed. This is not that wolf. This one whines at her words, for however much wolves understand grief. This is an old friend, but Adeline’s son is dead, and she has no time for the worries of wolves and bears, for the quarrels that foxes start with badgers. The world doesn’t have much time for these kinds of fairy tales any more.

But the whine starts an ache in her chest. You don’t send someone away into the winter woods. Shame over the thought of casting the wolf out mixes with the guilt of ever letting her son set foot between the trees. She lets the door fall open.

He finds the woodstove humming with coals and settles. Mud and bits of leaves are left where his paws fall. His winter coat is matted, and Adeline wants to pick the twigs from it. She approaches slowly, taking a wide loop to the side so he sees her before sidling closer and putting water on the stove to boil. Kicking a pillow closer, she sets herself down. The flame from her lamp and glow of the coals through the cracks of the stove’s door fills the house with ghosts.

“I watched you bury him,” the wolf says, and Adeline finds that a strange comfort.

“Thank you,” she says. Wolves don’t much bother to care for human problems. Not even the one warming himself by her fire.

She leans close enough to stoke the fire back to life. Bitter copper fills her nose, strong enough she can taste it on the back of her tongue. Too much blood today. First, her son’s. Now something she can’t make out in the darkness. She leaves his side long enough to splash her face with water and return with the lamp and clean cloths.

“What happened?”

“I knew a lark that befriended a hawk once. A storm came in spring so bitter and sudden the lark’s eggs froze in her nest—”

“Must it be a grieving story tonight, wolf?”

She has no name for him she can speak. She knows him like a familiar smell or an ache of recognition, the same way she knows when winter has started. Any time she’s asked him for a name, he tells her a story. Sometimes she can peel them apart, find some meaning at the core. Many times, they’re gibberish.

“You are a grieving story tonight, Adeline.”

Her throat burns for a moment so brief she isn’t sure it’s real pain. So carefully it’s hardly even a touch, she brushes her fingers against the edge of his hind leg. The fur is coarse. Heat from his skin makes her cold fingers tingle back to life. The growl in his chest seems automatic, for he lays his head down and keeps his peace the next time she tries. Something has gouged the flesh around his ribs. The shape of the wound is suspiciously tooth-like. Large-jawed.

Bear, she thinks again, suddenly certain of her diagnosis.

It’s been too long since she’s been to the village—she cuts away fur and does her best with what her garden provides. The whole place smells of herbs and oils.

“Once the bear king came out of his winter sleep still tired,” the wolf says; Adeline starts when she hears the word out loud. “He could not hunt nor scavenge and grew more and more ill over the hot days of summer. He slept early in autumn and never woke. Miles away, a new cub was born to take his place. But she was a tiny little thing in her mother’s paws. When one of her kind went mad in the snows, she was not yet old and strong enough to protect her woods.”

They are quiet for longer than Adeline can count. “I think that was the most straightforward thing you’ve ever spoken.”

“The bear…”

“It will be killed.”

“You’re sure of that?”

She isn’t, and her silence speaks to her doubt.

“I am too old for a mad bear, Little Red.”

Adeline puts her hand under his armpit, against his chest bone where his heartbeat taps against her palm like a mothwing. She knows enough of wolves and their panting breaths and hot quick blood to feel dull worry at the slowness of it. Today’s loss has left her nerves splintered, and she feels the weight of the late night. Though the wound is large, it is not deep. This is a sickening Adeline does not understand. Has the entire world fallen to it? She thinks it must have, in this winter where her village is afraid, her son is dead, and her friend…

“That’s not my name,” she says, an old argument. “And I’m too old for you to be dying on my floor, wolf.”

He blinks lazily at the light of the stove, and Adeline throws a blanket over him despite the trouble he’s brought her way.

“There was once what you humans would call a king in his castle—”

Adeline bolts the door for the first time since she was a child, draws every curtain, and curls before the fire like a wolf pup against her old friend.

A thing for certain Adeline knows about wolves: They are mostly not dishonest.

People are quite the opposite, she’s found. Most lie. Sometimes, you’ll find one so honest it hurts. It’s almost laughable that the first wolf she met was intent on deception. He was friendly. Liked the red of the cloak her grandmother made her and wanted to meet the woman. Adeline had been dreaming of wolves since she toddled about on baby legs trying to make friends with the moths and scarecrows. She dreamed of the wolves’ hunting and their eyes. The sharpness of their noses and slopes of their tails. This wolf walked beside her, and she could listen to the otherworldly rasp of his voice as he told her how much he favored the cakes she was bringing to her grandmother.

Later, she figured he liked the cloak not at all, or because it was the color of blood. She knew afterward why he wanted to meet her grandmother.

She saw the other wolf—not the silver-tongued one back in her grandmother’s cottage split down the belly like a fish—while she was behind the outhouse, retching up everything she’d ever eaten. He had the strangest expression. Eyes far too large. Human. She was ready to scream when he ducked his head and stepped away non-threateningly.

“I am sorry.” His voice sounded like he wasn’t used to speaking. He trotted to the side of the house, his nose touching the window frame, before slinking back into the trees.

She saw the hunter hauling the carcass of the creature that had almost eaten her whole.

Her mother forbade her from venturing into the trees after that, and her grandmother came to stay with them for a time. That very night she’d slipped out the window in her nightgown. The village sat in an opening in the woods, miles and miles of trees beginning a dozen yards from her parents’ house. It was spring. Heavy dew hung from the grass, wetting her toes and the hems of her gown. The moon was full, and she wanted to howl at it. When she found the wolf lying at the edge of the trees, she sat on a fallen trunk nearby.

“Are you a fairy tale?” she asked. A dream?

“No.”

“Why did you apologize to me?”

“Because I protect my kind. And I take care that they do no wrong,” he said, and told her a story about the animals he watches over, and the way the trees arrange themselves.

When she was much older, Adeline taught her son to always beware wolves, but never to hunt them.

A rattling on the door wakes her. The fire has died. The kettle atop the stove is stone cold. Warmth seeps into her skin from the wolf’s snout resting on the side of her waist, but she’s cold down to the bone. She puts a hand on the floor. Her hips, knees, shoulder, neck, even her ankles ache from sleeping on wood. Age does not suit her.

A knock follows the rattling. “Grandma? It’s Fern. Are you there?”

The little girl’s voice is solemn, and Adeline is half awake but vaguely angry. Surely Irene is here as well, but they should not be here, walking through the woods in the morning light, with a starving, rabid bear hunting for all the food it can get.

She glances at the creature beside her, his dark eyes staring unblinking. People are not so ready to believe in magic as they once were. There aren’t many around who will remember a time when you could strike a friendship with a wolf.

“Go into my bedroom,” she says. “In the closet in the back.”

She rises with some difficulty and unbolts the door. The air outside is an icy wave, slithering through her thin nightgown and the blanket over her shoulders. Snow floats on the breezes like scraps of tissue paper, taking their time to disappear onto the ground. The beginnings of an approaching storm. Six-year-old Fern chews on her littlest gloved finger and blinks up at her. Irene stands down off the porch with Albert, one of the bigger young men in the village. A shotgun is slung across his shoulder, and Adeline nods at him approvingly. Irene is not as foolish as Adeline’s sleeping mind imagined. She pulls Fern against her, covering her shoulders in the blanket she wears. The girl wriggles a bit but doesn’t pull free.

“Everything well, Irene?”

Her daughter-in-law looks like she hasn’t slept an hour this last night. Her eyes are dim, skin dull, shoulders bent. She wrings her hands around the handle of the basket of food she’s brought. Adeline figures her own face probably looks just as drawn.

“We think you should come stay with us a while, Mama. At least until that…” —the word catches in her throat, and she visibly glances into the trees— “monster creature is caught.”

Adeline used to bristle against the girl saying the motherly name, but it made Hugo smile, and she’s lost any will to keep up those thoughts. Irene isn’t quite ready to live amongst the trees, but she’s a good girl. She loved Hugo. Instead, Adeline imagines Hugo’s grin whenever it happened, the one tooth on the top row of teeth a hair shorter than the rest.

When Adeline’s grandmother came to live with them, leaving her little cottage in the woods, she never went back. She spent every day with them, and although Adeline cherished having the woman closer, she didn’t fail to notice the way she stared into the trees, how the animals of her mother’s garden came to her, but she never really went back home. Adeline might be able to stand it—never walking these paths again, never sleeping with the eyes of the forest just outside her wall—but this is where Hugo grew up. And she has a friend to care for.

“I’m all right, girl. I don’t go out much in this weather anyhow.”

Irene sucks her top lip in between her teeth, eyes trailing after Fern as she wanders Adeline’s porch. “You’re sure nothing’ll happen to you? You won’t go outside if you think anything’s out there?”

Adeline smiles a little. The movement cracks her face as if she hasn’t done it in ages. “I can keep myself to myself. I promise.”

Irene nods and sets the basket on the top step of the porch. Adeline is reluctant to leave the door, but steps forward to take it, genuine gratitude curling in her chest. She doesn’t need the provisions, but the younger woman means well. For the little time they’ve spent together, it’s more than she expected.

“You should get on back before this blizzard rolls in. It gets colder than anyone’s business out here in the winter.” She looks at Albert and manages to keep her voice level. “Anyone see that bear?”

She doesn’t miss the slightest downturn of his mouth, the pull-together of his eyebrows. “Markus thought he saw something last night on the edge of the woods. Huge. Shaped like a bear. But he filled it with enough lead to kill ten bears and it disappeared. Figures it must have been a shadow. Nothing would live through that.”

Adeline swallows thickly, a strange sensation rolling her stomach. Do they truly believe it was a shadow? Albert’s jaw works, his eyes on his boots or the trees. He’s frightened, and Adeline feels she should be as well. Instead, the dull ache that started last night in her chest becomes a pounding thing with teeth and claws. She feels sick. She wants to know what fairy tale out there killed her boy and sheds bullets.

“Mama?” Fern drapes herself over the porch railing. “Did Papa hunt bears?”

Irene makes a noise like someone’s punched her, quiet and low in her throat.

“Yes,” Adeline says gently, half-hearing her own words. “And it was a foolish thing he did.”

Fern blinks up at her, her eyes drifting down through the crack in the door and widening. When Adeline glances back, she sees her wolf still slumped by the stove, his head propped up against the leg of a chair, watching them. Her mouth opens with some half-formed explanation, but Fern only stares at her in wonder, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. She lets her grandmother steer her back down the steps to Irene.

“I’ll come by when the storm has calmed. With a present for you.”

“For me?” Fern grins enough to show the gaps in her baby teeth.

“Just for you.”

Irene looks like she’s trying to smile but can’t quite manage it. She takes her daughter into her arms. Adeline touches her shoulder. A pitiful comfort.

“Albert?” she says after they’ve turned away. The young man looks over his shoulder. “If any of you see that bear, shoot it, but don’t get anywhere close to it.”

He frowns but nods, glancing from side to side all the way down the path until the woods swallow them. They know not to stray, and to walk with quick steps.

Inside, she tells her wolf, “That was a foolish thing to do. I told you to hide.”

He lays his head down, whining once, unmoving under the weight of whatever ails him. It is quite possible he cannot get up. Quiet fills the house. Adeline itches in her skin, almost ready to shuck it off and run for the mountains far from here, where men and women do not exist and the forest is a thing without shape or meaning. She imagines the toenails sprouting from her fingertips, the thinning silver hair on her head becoming thick and short, enveloping her like a coat.

Her wolf is still watching her. “Why do you think those things, Little Red?”

His voice is a touch of wind, raspy and hardly-there. Adeline takes a few creeping steps forward, brushing her fingers along the top of his snout. He can’t know her strange dreams. Not really.

“What things?” she asks without thought.

She drags on a heavy coat and brings firewood in, slowly, pieces at a time, covering the outside pile with an old tarp. The snow sticks to the ground now, throwing a layer of dirty white across the world. Her house warms slowly. She heats gruel for herself and feeds him bits of salted pork she softens in hot water.

“What gift?” he asks.

Adeline stares at him evenly. His wound is not all that severe, just as she thought, and she feels a strange bitterness at him coming here to die for a reason she can’t understand. She feels small and old. Unequal to the task. The resentment fills her with shame.

“The gift for your granddaughter,” he clarifies. “You said you’re giving her a gift.”

There is a chest under her bed filled with many things. Hugo’s baby shoes. Her husband’s wedding ring. Black and white photos so grainy only she really knows the faces on them. Adeline pulls a length of thick red wool from its depths. She unclasps the front of the cloak and puts her face against the rough fabric. It hasn’t been around her shoulders in decades, but smells of pine and soil nonetheless.

“I remember that,” he says when she’s taken a seat in the chair beside the stove. She pulls out her sewing things and begins hemming the length of the wool, bringing in the shoulders and making the hood smaller. When she’s grown, Fern can cut the threads and make it long once again.

“Tell me why you weren’t frightened that day you saw me.”

Adeline doesn’t expect the question—he doesn’t usually ask them. “I don’t know. I’d been sneaking into the forest and trying to talk to the animals my entire life. And I was frightened of you, I just wasn’t quite ready to give up on whatever magic I thought I saw. Tell me how you became who you are.”

She expects a story, but receives a very straightforward, “The same way anyone becomes the way they are: They’re born.”

“Is that all?” A disappointment she can’t understand overtakes the worry in her chest for only a moment.

“What more did you want?”

Something beautiful and believable, she supposes. Or horrible and believable.

“I was born before there were war-planes in the sky and the trees became parted by trains. There was a boy I knew once who was much like you. He talked to flowers and sought time with the animals though he was still very small.”

He pauses long enough she asks, “What happened to him?”

“He found a dying badger. She told him he could dance with them. Become one with the dirt and the worms and the heartbeat of the woods. When she died, he took her skin upon him and ran with badger feet through the world.”

“Did he ever return?”

“He would visit his family, but only his sister could see him as the little brother she held dear.”

Adeline pulls out a crooked stitch. “And you’ve come here to die on me as well? Like my husband and my son?”

Grief is a tangible thing sometimes. She can hear it in his breathing, see it in the way his face crinkles around his eyes. Maybe wolves are better at heartache than she thought. The stitches she makes in her granddaughter’s cloak begin to blur, and Adeline thinks this is not what should be making her cry, even if they aren’t real tears yet.

Her wolf lays his head on her feet and sleeps.

Hugo was four years old when Adeline first took him deep enough into the woods that the only paths were the kind made by the paws of animals. The whole place smelled of summer heat, the soil hot and baking where the sun cut through the trees, her tongue heavy with the scent of pine sap. Hugo ran ahead and jumped from every fallen log while her husband, Paul, held her hand. He was a carpenter and a good man, quiet and stable. Even without fully understanding her relationship with the trees and the creatures in them, he accepted what she knew and didn’t question the way she knew it.

He’d met her wolf years ago, and although he wouldn’t speak to the creature, Paul let him eat from his hand, and his eyes held only curiosity. When she wanted Hugo to meet the wolf, she was answered with a smile.

“Mama, where are we going?”

“To meet a friend, little bird.”

“Out here?”

“Indeed,” she said, and her husband chuckled.

They didn’t find one another in any particular way. Adeline knew that if she walked enough, he’d eventually find their path.

“Mama, a wolf!” Hugo’s voice was a whisper anyone could hear.

She took Hugo by the hand and pulled him onto a log so that he was eye to eye with the creature. Her wolf looked curious, and vaguely amused. He snuffled Hugo’s mussed hair and loped through the trees while her boy chased the matted fur of his tail. Hugo was too young to understand what he was experiencing, his giggles echoing off the canopy of the woods. Beside her, her husband laughed and laughed at their boy’s wonder.

It attacks someone else.

When the storm has blown itself out, Adeline maneuvers her wolf onto a blanket and drags him into her bedroom with more than a little difficulty. Tucking him into the corner where no one is likely to look, she leaves a pan of water and throws another quilt across him. He slept through most of the storm but licks her hand as she prepares to leave, and she kneels by his head to stroke his ears.

“Do you fear walking that path alone?” His eyes are heavy-lidded.

“No.” She doesn’t feel that’s the right answer. “Fear and I aren’t cooperating since Hu…”

She chokes on his name and her wolf does not push. “Will bullets even do us any good?”

He sighs long and slow, like the air won’t leave his lungs. “I don’t know. It has a touch of magic same as you and I. And I… I wasn’t ready to be fighting it.”

There is a despair in his voice so deep it matches the ache in her own chest. She kisses the corner of his eye and walks the path with Hugo’s shotgun under her arm, her granddaughter’s new cloak tucked into her coat.

Frigid air still rustles the trees, but no snow blinds her way, and the path is free of any life.

The village spreads before her like the forest taking a breath, but she sees a group clustered at the entrance of one of the cottages. Not Hugo’s. Not Irene’s and Fern’s, but Adeline feels something lodge in her throat. She’s known the faces of the people around her all her life, feels their concerned eyes on her as she squeezes through the throng to get to the nearest window. Albert sits at the table, his disfigured arm being cleaned by the doctor. Adeline looks away.

“Mama, Mama, Adeline.” Irene’s fingers wrap around her upper arm, leading her from the window. Her eyes are red.

“What happened?”

“It—the bear came into the village. Albert shot it right in the head but it ran off like it wasn’t nothing, good God. Did you walk here by yourself?”

Adeline nods half-heartedly, allowing the younger woman to lead her back to the house Hugo just built for them. Fern blinks at her from the kitchen table but jumps to her feet when her grandmother opens her arms. She puts her face in the girl’s hair and breathes, her scent something like Hugo’s but not quite.

“I have something for you,” she says quietly, unfolding the blood-red cloak from her coat. Fern’s mouth forms a little O as Adeline drapes it around her shoulders. “Keep it on when you go into the woods. My grandmother made it for me, and I changed it to fit you.”

“It looks like poppies,” she says, enamored of the little brass button used to clasp it in the front. Adeline likes that imagery more than anything she could come up with.

She kisses the girl and puts her lips beside her ear. “It’ll be over soon. No need to be afraid. I love you, little bird.”

She is aware of Irene watching them the way one feels the eyes of animals in the woods, curious and knowing at once. Her daughter-in-law follows her outside, where she left the shotgun leaning against the wall in the flowerbed.

“You can’t walk back alone.” She pauses like she knows her own words aren’t right and tries again. “What are you going to do?”

Her voice shakes like pine needles in the breeze, her hand at her neck, lower lip unsteady. Adeline thinks of her wolf taking his last breaths in her house, and of the little boy that danced with a badger’s skin until he became one. Wolf’s magic is old; only Adeline’s body is.

She hugs Irene, taking her skinny shoulders into her arms until the girl cries. She gives her a kiss on the forehead same as she gave to her granddaughter. Her throat begins to burn, and doesn’t stop as she takes the path back home.

It growls when she reaches her porch: the creature behind her. The bear is large, but not much more so than her wolf. It’s ragged and ghost-thin, unlike anything she’s ever seen. Pale fur blotches its skin, the roar it makes when it steps forward alien and strange. Adeline fires three shots, backing up the steps into her doorway, sobbing like a madwoman. The bear snarls and flinches from the bullets long enough for her to bolt the door behind her. She can hear its paws on the porch, claws against the door, but her house stands strong and proud as the day it was built, and Adeline lets her son’s rifle lean against the wall.

Her wolf is where she left him, breathing deep, too-slow breaths. His eyes watch her through exhausted slits.

Despite the soreness from the other night slept on the floor, she curls around him, weeping into his fur.

“This is not a story, not really,” her wolf tells her, his breath on the inside of her palm. “You are not the only friend I’ve had, but perhaps the best. I know when I’m ready to be in the earth. Your boy crossed my path as I came to find you. He saw my weakness and carried me. The bear crossed our path, and I could not help him fight it.”

The night is quiet, and Adeline’s body is unmovable, as if the weight of her tears and their shared grief is something to be felt and wrapped around her. She’s not released him from her embrace.

“I know what you’ll do,” he says, soft as the night. “For your granddaughter. I think it’s good. I did not tell you that the boy who danced in the badger’s skin heard her voice within his heart until he, too, laid down into the earth.”

Relief is a breath of air that finally reaches her lungs, a sharp knife against her sorrow. “Good.”

He whimpers softer than a breeze, kissing her fingers with a weak tongue.

“You were there with him?” she asks.

“Forgive me for my weakness.”

Adeline’s arms form a vise around him, her face in the rough fur of his neck, “Always, wolf.”

His pelt comes off like air, solid and musky in her hands. Nothing awaits under the skin but bones that dry and crumble the moment air touches them. Adeline wonders if this is what she will look like inside once the deed is done, and weeps through the task, though his heartbeat has long faded.

On the bed are Hugo’s things, and a few other treasures she doesn’t want lost to time. Irene will find them soon enough.

She sheds her clothes in the cold, cold night, opening every window, breathing out Hugo’s name and kissing goodbye the world he knew.

She wraps her new skin around her. For many minutes the wolf is nothing but a wet, warm fur around her old flesh. But she feels it like a birdsong far off, a little pinch in her chest that fails to hurt but leaves her on her knees nonetheless. Salt from her tears mixes with the bloody skin. The walls of her house become confining and narrow, and she slips out the window on four large paws that guide her through the trees, muscles crawling along her back and legs and neck, itching to be used. Her heart pounds like heavy wheels on a train track. A thousand smells fight for her attention. Her tail brushes the back of her legs.

Focus, something inside her says, and a yip of bitter joy at the familiar voice breaks apart her chest.

She smells the bear by the village, all madness and maggot-filled meat. Like a dream, a shadow under the moon, she lopes away from her human home.

In the spring, Adeline’s granddaughter finds a wolf on the edge of the trees. The girl wears her grandmother’s poppy-red cloak, and the wolf’s dark fur is veined with silver. She remembers the mad bear that took her Papa in the winter, and the wolf that came to drive it away.

She grins with half her baby teeth.

The wolf whines and licks the girl’s giggling cheek. Her mother hangs laundry a ways away, and watches with eyes that don’t see or don’t fear the creature kissing her daughter’s neck.

“Grandma,” the little girl says.

The wolf settles around her granddaughter and tells her a story of a badger that was once a boy, an old wolf that befriended a young woman, and all the animals she watches over.

fin

Emily McCosh resides in California with her family and monster dogs, where she is a graphic designer by day and dedicated daydreamer (read: story writer) at all times. Her fiction is forthcoming/published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Fiction Online, Galaxy’s Edge, and elsewhere. Find her online at oceansinthesky.com and on FB and Twitter @wordweaveremily.

Published Shimmer #46, November 2018, 5600 words

Other woods:

Hare’s Breath, by Maria Haskins

Trees Struck by Lightning Burning From the Inside Out, by Emily Lundgren

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

 

Shimmer #46

Come with us, into the woods, where we’ll meet a wolf, a witch, an orchard, a rocking chair, a roller derby, a strip mall, a hungry lake, fairies, cups of tea, a feather, a bit of thistledown, a ghost. The culmination of all your hopes and dreams.

Are you ready? Really ready? It’s the final Shimmer.

Rotkäppchen by Emily McCosh 
The wolf arrives the same day Adeline buries Hugo on the edge of the woods, her boy’s grave forming a raft of upturned earth between two trees, just far enough from the fens that he won’t be drowning. She watches two young village men blanket him in icy soil. His shotgun leans against a nearby tree. His hunting knife is tucked under her shirt, against her back. Bone handle followed by colder steel. A second spine to hold her upright. (5600 words)

The Witch in the Woods Falls in Love For a Third Time, by Kate Lechler
The story as you probably heard it goes, once upon a time, a witch met your great-great-grands in the woods, blessed the good sister, cursed the bad. The sweet one went on to marry some jumped-up slick-faced city boy, while the sorry one lost herself in the woods and was probably eaten by a cougar. (850 words)

Streuobstwiese, by Steve Toase 
Kate’s been out on the roof again. She’s drawn her finger through salt the color of wood ash, the sigils barely holding together on the terracotta slope of the tiles. The gutters are clogged with yellow fat, and dead hares whose eyes are gilded in gold leaf. Across the valley a field of barley whitens with mold and blight. (3100 words)

Lake Mouth, by Casey Hannan
My mother walks up dizzy from the pier with her mouth open and her arms out and dripping. The lizards on the boardwalk drop their blue tails to get out of her way.  (2100 words)

40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was, by Alex Acks
A permanent shadow is burned into the cracked sidewalk outside the mattress store, tall and thin, with no head and too many fingers. (1400 words)

Antumbra, by Cory Skerry 
As you enter the doors of this school for the last time, the girl who your brother slept with last night brightens for just a moment before she realizes you’re not Jesse. She deflates. (4000 words)

The Time Traveler’s Husband, by A. C. Wise (available January 29)
The time traveler’s husband leaves cups of tea throughout the too-empty apartment, waiting for his wife to come home. Sometimes – hours or days later – he finds the mugs drained, bearing the ghost imprint of lips, dregs staining the ceramic in dark, overlapping rings. Other times, the mugs are untouched, smelling of jasmine, bergamot, and orange pekoe gone cold. (4200 words)

Tyrannocora Regina, by Leonie Skye (available February 12)
Pursuit of her conjures a centripetal force that sculpts the seething ball of superheated wrongness inside my chest. Otherwise it would shatter my honeycombed ribs and blow a hole in the side of this cherry soda-smelling derby palace. (5900 words)

Rust and Bone, by Mary Robinette Kowal (available February 26)
Grandmother’s rocking chair is made of iron. It is rust and death and blood. Grandmother’s rocking chair sits in the middle of the porch so that she can watch me and pet her turtle. Tortoise, really. It is as old as Grandmother and waits patiently by the chair like an end-table of shell. (3200 words)

From the Void, by Sarah Gailey (available March 12)
The way I miss Esther is a slow-spreading bruise. It started in my belly, and every day, it spreads further across my solar plexus. If it had bloomed across my skin, I would sink my thumb into the center of it, press until the venous blue deepened into black. I would watch the color change with satisfaction, knowing that it would fade with time. (5000 words)

Thistledown Sky, by Stephen Case (available March 26)
The sky is crowded with ghosts. They pilot ships named after our rivers: Indus, Euphrates, Danube, Mississippi, Amazon, Tigris, Nile. My daughter’s is the Potomac, which she says is ironic and self-referential. It will be the eighth American ship, but only the third that has been piloted through our nation’s gate. (1900 words)

Ghosts of Bari, by Wren Wallis (available April 9)
Salvage is the only long-term game in the universe. No tyrant of the star-nets or titan of trade ever admired a salvage crew; we’re the crows on their trash-heaps, the rats in their walls. But I don’t think any of them’s ever considered, either, that when their names have long gone airless and their works are rust and shadow, it’s junkers who write their elegies. Every empire ever raised eventually falls. And sooner or later, the crows always come for the corpses. (4500 words)

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Shimmer Issue 46 Electronic
Shimmer Issue 46 Electronic
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