Tag Archives: birds

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace

Smoke rose from the center of Asunder Island, marring a sky so blue and so clear it made Aurelia’s eyes ache. The sailors had been insisting for days she would see the Atrox swooping and turning overhead, if only she watched long enough, but there was no sign of the great birds.

The hull of the dinghy scraped the black beach. A sailor splashed through the shallows to pull the boat ashore and help Aurelia out. Her sealskin boots kept her feet dry, but her wool skirts were instantly sodden.

“Tomorrow?” the man said.

“Yes,” said Aurelia. “Thank you.”

He was already rowing back to the open sea, eager to be away. The ship was a dark blot in the distance, tiny and fragile as a toy.

It was a cold day, but calm for the Southern Ocean, the air raw with the stink of fish and penguins. A thin trail wound from the beach up an eroded crack in the black slope. Aurelia chose her steps with care and did not stop until she reached the top.

Asunder Island had the shape of a cat’s eye: round at the shores, split down the middle by an elongated chasm, its depths hidden by smoke and darkness. The wind carried the island’s sulfurous gasps away from Aurelia, but she could taste the fumes on her tongue, feel the sting in her throat.

motion-pull1In Aurelia’s trunk aboard the ship was a monograph: Observations of the Southern Ocean Atrox in Their Island Colonies. The author, Mr. Davies, would have preferred to write about penguins, but people only wanted to read about the Atrox, or so he told Aurelia when they met in London. He would talk for hours about birds, but when she turned the conversation to the Summer Star he had only laughed.

“Nonsense,” Davies had said. “What place do sailors’ superstitions have in this modern age?”

Aurelia withdrew her mariner’s compass from her satchel. It did not matter what men like Mr. Davies said. She was here, black stone beneath her feet and cold wind on her face, and he was not. On Mr. Davies’s map, the crevasse was oriented precisely north to south, but her own measurement showed a northeast-southwest trend of at least fifteen degrees. She could not make a note yet — her ink would be frozen solid — but she would record the correction later.

She tucked her compass away and took a breath to steady herself. She stood now at the north end of the island. A colony of chinstrap penguins swarmed over the western flank, but Aurelia’s destination was to the east, where a long ridge of tumbling volcanic rock led to a village. Beyond the village, perched atop a cliff overlooking the end of the world, was the observatory.

Asunder Island was by all sensible measure a terrible location for an astronomical observatory. It was too remote for regular use, and the Southern Ocean too stormy. The telescope offered little to modern star charts that better observatories could not provide. The Asunder Island observatory existed for a single purpose: as the southernmost telescope on Earth, it was the only place suited to observe the Summer Star and measure its curious proper motion.

Tucked in beside Mr. Davies’s monograph in Aurelia’s trunk was a copy of Lord Petterdown’s Celestial Bodies of the Southern Sky, which devoted five pages to a spluttering dismissal of the Summer Star’s unusual motion. The measurements had to be wrong, said Petterdown, because common adventurers and uneducated sailors had no place mucking about in scientific inquiry. Aurelia found his careless argument offensive to her sense of intellectual rigor, but enticing as well, like a challenge to a duel. She was very much looking forward to proving him wrong.

As they had been preparing for their voyage, Aunt Theo had suggested that perhaps the words also stung Aurelia’s pride, as her parents had been among those common adventurers who had stopped briefly at Asunder Island. Aurelia had brushed aside her concern. Her parents were long dead, and it was Theo’s nature, not Aurelia’s, to be more swayed by sentiment than science.

The trail to the village was rough and steep. Aurelia paused to rest and the crunch of her boots fell quiet. The sounds of the island surrounded her. There was the wind, always the wind, scouring the stone and buffeting the fur flaps of her hat, and there was the grumbling sea. But there were also faint hisses and groans, a rustle like pages turning in a breeze, the knock and clatter of falling stones.

Aurelia turned, heart pounding, but she was alone. The sounds were rising from the chasm, the gaping heart of the island.

She stepped off the trail to peer over the edge. The smoke was as thick as the murkiest London fog, and the sulfur stench was strong. To the south a crooked stone staircase crawled into the darkness.

Standing above the crevasse, smoke stinging her eyes, Aurelia was for the first time willing to believe the lurid, far-fetched tales of explorers who had ventured into Atrox colonies: underground landscapes of bottomless pits and lakes of lava, impossible cities carved into stone, wild yellow eyes glowing from towers with predatory intelligence, a thousand black wings rustling in the darkness.

An ache in her lungs reminded her to breathe. She could not stand here all day gawking at shadows, hoping to glimpse one great bird. She had work to do. She turned away.

The village was a ring of six stone huts with roofs fashioned from battered shipboards. There were no windows. Every door was shut tight. The only sign of occupation was the greasy black smoke rising from the chimneys. On the ground, discarded fish scales glinted in the sunlight. A skinny brown rat scurried into hiding.

Aurelia swallowed her revulsion. She was tempted to bypass the village and head straight to the observatory, but at this latitude, on the rising edge of summer, there were only a few hours of darkness each night, and it would be some time before the sun set. The ship’s captain had warned her to treat the islanders politely. There was talk among the sailors about the islanders and their relationship with the Atrox colony, sordid rumors that made the men snicker behind their beards when Aurelia and Theo approached. Aurelia had little patience for the gossip of sailors, but she would not allow their bad manners to excuse her own.

She strode to the nearest door and knocked. Something rustled inside; she leaned close to listen.

“Hello!” she called. “Is anybody here? Hello?”

“They won’t answer.”

The voice came from another building; a round face peered through the cracked door, a girl of about eighteen, pale and freckled.

“They don’t like strangers,” the girl said.

“Hello,” said Aurelia. “I didn’t see you there. My name is Aurelia Gallagher. I’ve come to use the observatory.”

The girl disappeared into the hut and the door swung inward. Her voice floated from the murky shadows. “It won’t be dark for some time. Would you like to come in?”

The inside of the hut was as squalid as the outside. The only light came from a low fire on the hearth, and the room stank of fish and smoke. A lumpy cot crowded one corner, a small table another. Wedged into the wall above the table was a plank, and on it an assortment of objects: coins, rusty nails, medicine bottles, a fob watch with a cracked face.

“We don’t get very many visitors,” said the girl. “My name is Constance. Where have you come from? Please, go on, sit there by the fire where it’s warm.”

Aurelia sat gingerly on a crooked bench. She held her satchel in her lap and pulled her feet close. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Constance. I’ve come from London.”

“I’ve heard so much about London. My fiancé has told me. Will you have tea?”

“Only if it’s no trouble,” said Aurelia.

“Oh, it isn’t.” Constance was already reaching for a dented kettle. She moved stiffly, favoring her left side; her shoulder was hunched beneath a heavy shawl. “Gran would like some too, wouldn’t you?”

Constance smiled toward a dark corner of the hut. Eyes glittered in the shadows, and a mottled gray lump moved. Aurelia startled. She had mistaken the old woman for a pile of blankets.

“Aurelia has come to use the observatory, Gran,” Constance said. “Isn’t that grand? We don’t have many women come to our island.”

Aurelia twisted her gloves together on her lap. One of those rare women had been her mother, Letitia. Aurelia’s parents had stopped at Asunder Island long ago, before she was born. Their memories of soaring great Atrox had been among her favorite bedtime stories — although they had neglected to mention the grim village where wretched old women lived little better than animals.

“Gran likes visitors from far away,” Constance said.

Crouching in the corner, knees bent to her chest, the old woman said nothing. Beneath the folds of her skirt her toenails were yellow and curved. Gray hair fell in dirty hanks around her face. Beside her, in the corner, a wooden ladder jutted from a hole in the floor.

Gran blinked and Aurelia looked away, her face warm.

Constance set out chipped cups and saucers. The tea, she said, was a gift from her fiancé, a sailor at the whaling station on South Georgia Island.

“We’re going to be married soon,” she said.

“Does he visit often?” Aurelia asked.

“He was here last summer,” said Constance. “January, at the turn of the year. That was when we courted. He’ll return soon.”

“Will you go with him when you’re wed?” Aurelia asked, examining Constance with new interest. “Are you very excited?”

Constance knelt by the fire. The flames made her pale face look sickly and flushed. “Life aboard a whaleship is no place for a bride, is it?”

Aurelia’s vision of two young people sharing whispered plans for escape evaporated, and she felt pity so overwhelming she could almost taste it. The young man was likely oceans away by now, having forgotten all about the strange hunched girl waiting on a black lump of rock in the Southern Ocean, except perhaps when he needed a tale to share with friends. She thought I would marry her, he would say, and pass the bottle along. She smelled of fish and slept with rats and she thought we were in love, and he would laugh, he would light his pipe, he would speak of other things.

The kettle pinged and hissed. Constance wrapped her skirt around her good hand to lift it out of the fire. As she turned, her shawl slipped from her left shoulder.

The useless limb wasn’t an arm at all. It was a wing. The feathers were as black as oil.

Aurelia stared, her pulse thunderous in her ears. The captain’s warning, the sailors’ knowing laughter. The way Mr. Davies had shuddered with distaste and touched his handkerchief to the corner of his mouth when Aurelia asked about the inhabitants of Asunder Island and how they lived with the Atrox colony so near. She hadn’t listened. She hadn’t even understood what she was refusing to hear.

Constance tugged the shawl absently back into place and she was a girl again, only a girl, her deformity hidden. “Hot tea is the only thing for a day like this, don’t you think? Do you have wind like this in London? Here we are. I hope it’s strong enough.”

Aurelia drank without thinking. The tea tasted of moldy wood; she gagged and coughed. In the corner dark eyes sparked, and the old woman’s dry laughter filled the room.

“No,” said Aurelia, recovering. “We don’t have wind like this in London. Nothing like this at all.”

“Will you tell me?” Constance asked. When she spoke faint lines around her mouth creased; she was older than Aurelia had first thought. “We have so few visitors. I love to hear all about where they’ve come from.”

Aunt Theo would know what to say. She would overcome her shock at the existence of this chimerical girl, she would laugh away the awkwardness, she would fill the silence. But Theo had remained on the ship. Here there was only Aurelia with her unease and an afternoon to endure before dark. She sipped the foul tea and hoped Constance could not see how her hands trembled.

“What do you want to know?” she asked.

Constance’s expression was eager. “Everything.”

It was easier once she began to speak. It was only conversation, she told herself. It did not matter what Constance hid beneath her shawl. As the day waned she told Constance about London’s gardens in springtime, the rattle of carriages on paving stones, the markets and the pickpockets, church bells on Sunday morning. Constance was full of questions about the world beyond her island. Aurelia tried to explain how it felt to stand at the heart of London with the crowds pressing all around, so many people and so little space, the air so thick with the noise of them it felt like drowning, but all of her words were inadequate to span the distance between Asunder Island and home.

“It sounds remarkable,” Constance said, soft and wistful, pouring out the last of their second pot of tea.

“It is,” said Aurelia. She and Theo had left London months ago aboard a morning train to Southampton, and not until they passed the equator on their voyage south had Aurelia felt the pinch of homesickness in her gut and wished she had looked back for a last glance.

Her mother would laugh to hear them now. Letitia had always insisted London was dull and mundane, no comparison at all to the dark jungles and vast deserts and ancient cities of the world, all the places where a bold woman might go to feel joyous and alive.

Aurelia felt only cold and anxious. Her revulsion had softened, but she could not find enthusiasm in its place. Perhaps the joy came later, in the drawing rooms of less adventurous friends, where a crooked stone hut that stank of fish might transform into a bold Antarctic outpost, a lonely half-winged girl into an island princess.

“It will be dark soon,” Constance said. “Would you like to go to the observatory?”

motion-pull2The question caught Aurelia by surprise. The afternoon had slipped past in a dream of moldy tea and tiresome wind, and she felt breathlessly unprepared for the night. She fumbled for her satchel, dropped her gloves, mumbled her assent.

They went into the blustery dusk. Sunset burnished the sky in fiery shades, and faded, the last daylight leeching away. Bright stars emerged and Aurelia counted them one by one. Her neck ached. The wind was brutally cold but she lingered, watching the horizon, waiting. Years of planning, months of travel, and the tea had grown cold, and the earth had turned, and it was time. She had come so far to see —

There. The Summer Star was rising. A spark at the edge of the world.

From the chasm rose a sudden clattering roar. The Atrox were awake.

In the twilight Constance’s eyes had the same beetle-shell gleam as her grandmother’s. “They’re always restless at night.”

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Inside, the observatory was surprisingly warm. There was a fire in an iron stove, and behind it, tucked in the corner, was the old woman.

Aurelia stopped short, but Constance didn’t notice. She bustled around the room lighting candles and lamps.

The old woman stared at Aurelia, unblinking. Here too she crouched beside a square hole where the arms of a wooden ladder reached from below. The noise of the Atrox was quieter inside, but the ground felt unsteady, as though the island itself were the flank of a great beast, rising and falling with slow breaths. Did those people who chose to — Aurelia glanced at Constance’s wing, cringed — intermingle with the Atrox stay below to live? Did they surrender to the caverns entirely? Aurelia strained to listen, but she could not hear human voices in that muffled roar.

“Do you know how to use the telescope?” Constance asked.

Aurelia pulled her gaze away from the old woman. “Yes, I do.”

“I don’t know much about it,” Constance admitted. “I used to play with it when I was little, but I could never see anything more than smudges of light. This here, this is how we open the roof.”

The observatory roof rattled as they turned the crank.

“It must be important, that little star,” Constance said. She wasn’t hiding her wing anymore. Hanging uselessly at her side, the long black feathers almost resembled fingers, or claws. “So many people come to look at it.”

“It is,” Aurelia said, “although not everyone agrees. Many astronomers say it’s only a curiosity.”

Before her journey began, Aurelia had received a dozen letters from concerned relatives and members of the Royal Society suggesting that while her capacity with sums was impressive for a woman, it would be better for her to devote herself to a more appropriate pursuit, such as a respectable marriage or a career as a governess, rather than spending so much ink pleading for an unnecessary Antarctic expedition. Think of Hugh and Letitia, they said. Would her parents not want better for her? After what happened to them, desiccated by disease beneath the pink stone palaces of Jaipur, surely they would want her to remain safe in London?

“But I think it’s far more than a curiosity.” Aurelia said. “You see, the Summer Star is moving.”

“All stars move,” Constance said.

Aurelia shook her head, warming to her explanation. “Not like this. It moves unlike stars around it. It moves with them too, rising and setting every day and through all the seasons, but it’s also moving between them. Not so we can see it with our eyes — we have to watch for years. But it’s still much faster than any star should move. Other stars have shifted only half a degree since the time of the Greeks, but this one, it’s crossed that span in less than a century.”

“Is it coming closer or going farther away?” Constance asked.

“I don’t know,” Aurelia said, an edge of frustration creeping into her voice. She was speaking too quickly, at a pitch too high. “There’s a man in England who suggests that all stars are moving away from the earth. But even for him, even with all of his equipment aimed at the very brightest stars, his flint prisms and his spectra — even then it’s a very difficult measurement. And the Summer Star is so unusual in its other motion, so strange…” Aurelia gestured helplessly. “I don’t know.”

“So much bother for one tiny speck of light,” Constance said, amused. “And there are so many stars.”

Aurelia stopped herself from making a sharp reply. Constance wasn’t being unkind. She didn’t care to hear about parallax and prisms, degrees and declinations. Aurelia turned her attention to adjusting the telescope. Soon the Summer Star’s nearest celestial neighbors would be high enough above the horizon for measurement.

“Do you need this? This is where the others have written down their numbers.” Constance carried a large leather-bound book to Aurelia, holding it against her body with her one hand. “You’ll have to write yours as well, won’t you?”

Aurelia took the book from her and laid it on her knees. She dug through her satchel to find her pen and ink. “Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you.”

The book’s pages were full of numbers, notes, and trigonometrical calculations spanning more than a century. A young stargazer aboard Captain Cook’s Resolution had been the first to measure the curious motion of the Summer Star, and a few years later his observations had captured the interest of Lord Petterdown’s father, who had spent an unseemly portion of his family’s fortune constructing the telescope on Asunder Island. New measurements had been added at odd intervals ever since, whenever a traveler or a sailor with a liking for astronomy made the journey.

Aurelia turned the pages carefully — the paper was dry and rotting at the edges — and stopped when her eyes found familiar handwriting. Her heart began to drum and her breath shortened. She traced the columns with her fingertips, catching on imperfections. She had known they would be in here. She had always known. But she had, somehow, expected her father’s handwriting, not her mother’s, not the elegant lines and curves of script she had coveted since she was a child, yearning for every new letter. At the top of the page were careless drops of ink and the smudge of a fingerprint.

“I remember them,” said Constance.

Aurelia resisted the urge to cover the book with her hands, to hide it jealously and clutch it to her chest.

“Do you?” she asked doubtfully. Her parents had visited Asunder Island before Aurelia was born, and she didn’t think Constance could be much older than her own thirty years. “You must have been very young.”

Constance sat beside her on the bench, brushing Aurelia’s shoulder. Where her arm should have been there was the unnatural give of feathers. Aurelia leaned away.

“They were a young couple,” Constance said. “Man and wife. I remember because so few women come here.”

Aurelia swallowed. Her mouth was dry.

“He was ill. He ought to have stayed on the ship. That’s what his wife kept saying,” Constance went on. “She made him rest on a pallet over there on the floor. They argued about it, but I think she was quite used to getting her own way. They didn’t seem to care much about the star, not the way you do. It was only a diversion to them.”

A storm of answers gathered on the tip of Aurelia’s tongue: But they were never ill, not until the end. They never argued. How could you possibly know what they cared about? They were alive and in love and this place, this grim little island, it was only a flicker in their lives. A breath, a blink, a bedtime story. They never told me about you.

“I confess I pitied her,” Constance said.

Aurelia closed her hand into a fist, creasing the edge of the paper. “What reason could you have for pity?” she asked, because she could not say: how dare you?

“She was unhappy.”

Aurelia had no memories of her mother being unhappy. Letitia was as radiant as a fairy queen, always in motion, pulling Aurelia’s laughing father in her wake. Aurelia could scarcely imagine how it must have changed at the end, when they were struck down by cholera. She had never forgiven them for dying so very far from her.

“Why do you say she was unhappy?” Aurelia asked.

“She told me a story to pass the time. Would you like to hear it?”

The answer thrummed in Aurelia’s fingers with her heartbeat. The numbers on the page blurred. She unclenched her hand and laid it flat, thumb covering the smudge of Letitia’s fingerprint. Everything she had learned, everything she had prepared, it all fled from her mind. There was only the wind rattling the roof, the woman beside her with an impossible wing, the restless Atrox, her mother’s ink beneath her hand. She had always thought her mother had such delicate hands, but she had been a child, and a child’s memories were less trustworthy than the sea before a storm.

“I have quite a lot to do,” Aurelia said.

It was the coward’s response.

“This woman,” Constance began, “she said — “

“Letitia,” Aurelia said. “Her name was Letitia.”

Constance looked at her with something like pity. “I thought you had the look of her.”

Aurelia set the book aside. Her breath hitched, and she was a child again, watching through the parlor window for the carriage that would bring her parents home, excited and terrified and hungry for a glimpse of their faces, for the music of their laughter.

She said, “I would very much like to hear the story she told you.”

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They had been sailing between England and the Australian colonies, adventurers flying across the world, never allowing the snares of society to catch their heels. Letitia was the only woman aboard, but the crew gave her little trouble. She was a gentlewoman, and her husband was strong and blessed with an Irish temper.

(Aurelia smiled, remembering her father’s red face and untrimmed whiskers, the boom of his voice, the songs he taught her to shock disapproving nursemaids. They could have been great friends, father and daughter, if only he had quelled his wanderlust, or lived long enough to take her along.)

One night during this journey Letitia woke from a restless sleep to find the ship still in the water. Desperate for a breath of fresh air, she slipped from her husband’s embrace and fled their stuffy cabin. On deck the sailors had fallen asleep at their watch; not one stirred at her approach. It should have worried her, but she felt only relief to have the night to herself.
There was no moon, but the starlight on the sea was bright enough for her to see an island nearby: a gentle hump of land, a necklace of silver sand, a dark thatch of palms.

The night air was cool and pleasant on her skin. She gulped it in greedily, tasting each breath. Though she was newly wed and very much in love, Letitia still harbored the suspicion that the farther she ran, the smaller the world became, the more insidious its traps. London had grown too close for her, England as well, and every grand city in Europe. She had thought to escape by setting sail, but even the world’s oceans seemed to be shrinking around her, the horizons creeping closer with every day. She knew in the morning her restlessness would fade, and she would walk the deck on her husband’s arm, and they would talk of the places they would go, the wonders they would see. You are so very lucky, her mother had said when she married, the needles in her voice belying the kindness of the words. You are so very lucky to have found a man to indulge your whims, to keep you safe from your wildest impulses.

But now Letitia stood with no one but the sea. She could not bear to return to the suffocating cabin and the scratch of her husband’s chest against her cheek. The night was as untethered as a dream. It had been too long since she let a wild impulse take her.

She stepped out of her nightgown, climbed onto the wooden rail, and dove into the water. She swam toward the island with long, smooth strokes. She did not stop until she felt the sugar-soft sand beneath her feet.

When she emerged from the sea, the women were waiting.

They stood like sentries on the beach, unsmiling in the starlight. They were dark and pale, sturdy and thin, young and old. Letitia wrung seawater from her hair and did not let herself tremble under the weight of their stares.

The line of women parted, and an old woman appeared. She was hunched and round with plaited gray hair hanging over her shoulders. She held out a hand and led Letitia up the beach to where a great bonfire raged.

Around the fire the women danced and sang into the night. Letitia did not know their languages, for they spoke dozens, but she understood every song. They told stories of escaping their own husbands and mothers and the pretty cages their families had built for them, how they crafted boats and wove sails and chased the wind across storms and sunrises. Each woman’s voice lifted in an exultant shout, and she threw her arms to the sky, and her arms became wings, and she rose on the cries and cheers of the others.

(In the eyepiece of the telescope, the Summer Star wavered, blurred. Aurelia remembered sitting quiet as a ghost in her mother’s room, watching Letitia dress for a party, and the thin twin scars she spied between Letitia’s shoulders. She had invented her own stories for her mother’s old wound: a jaguar stalking through the jungle, a headhunter in the Amazon, a sultan’s flashing sword in an Arabian desert. Had she imagined a pair of wings unfurled? What a fanciful child she had been.)

The night lasted years. Letitia danced until her skin wrinkled and her breasts sagged, her voice cracked like old wood and her hair grew matted and gray. She forgot her own name, her husband’s touch, her mother’s voice, the cool green homeland she had left behind. She danced to welcome every new woman who surged ashore.

Then it was her turn to stoop and shuffle as the younger women stepped aside, to hold out a welcoming hand to a girl who emerged dripping and wary from the waves.

But when Letitia caught the girl’s hand, smoke and saltwater cleared from her eyes. The girl had Hugh’s red hair, Theo’s Roman nose, Mother’s pinched scowl. The sky to the east was brightening. The dark silhouette of a ship marred the water.

Letitia gripped the girl’s hand and pulled her into the waves. Fear was a fire in her throat. They dove together, and with every stroke the years washed from Letitia’s body. When she reached the ship and scrambled up the ropes, her hair was dark again, her skin smooth, her limbs straight and strong. Her nightgown lay where she had left it. She dressed with shaking hands.

She looked back, but the island was gone. There was only a burst of seabirds, specks of shadow in a gray dawn, whirling and rising as the sun swallowed them.

It wasn’t until she was settled again at her husband’s side that she remembered the girl. She pressed her fingers to her lips to muffle her sobs. They had been swimming together, then she was alone, and she had not felt the moment the girl slipped away.

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“That’s all she told me,” said Constance. “The island was gone. The sailors had never seen it. She was your mother?”

Aurelia scrubbed at her damp cheeks and cleared her throat. “Yes. She — yes. She used to tell me stories of her adventures. She was… They were always sailing away to somewhere new, some faraway place. Every time they sent a letter I would find them on a map.”

Aurelia had been twelve years old when a letter brought the news of her parents’ deaths to Aunt Theo’s house in London. Old enough to read it for herself, young enough to declare it a lie. She was adamant: there was no way they could know for certain what had happened. They had no proof. For two months she presented her hypothesis every morning over breakfast. India was very far away, and who was this army officer sending them letters anyway? Her mother and father had never contracted cholera here, in London, and why should Indian cholera be so very different? Had they not survived ordeals far stranger? The next letter — this was the culmination of Aurelia’s thesis, punctuated with the clatter of a spoon on china — the next letter would arrive any day now, and that stranger would be shown for the fool he was. What a mistake I have made, he would say. It was another girl’s parents who perished. Yours have already set sail for home. They will be with you soon. What a terrible mistake I have made.

Aurelia remembered how Aunt Theo had listened with tears in her eyes, tears Aurelia scorned because there was no reason to cry. She remembered finding Jaipur on a map of the world and tracing the long route back to London: overland to Bombay, aboard a ship around the Cape of Good Hope, north across the doldrums, riding the westerlies home. She remembered the feel of the map beneath her fingertip, the clean lines made imperfect when ink smudged from her touch.

What she couldn’t remember was when she had stopped imagining her parents as a speck on a map coming ever closer, and when she had begun instead to see them as shades retreating into the distance, all color and light and laughter washed away, echoes of echoes fading to silence.

“She never told me that story,” Aurelia said, envy sour at the back of her throat.

Constance’s face fell. “I’m so sorry. I’ve always remembered her.”

Aurelia’s jealousy vanished as quickly as it had sparked, and in its place she felt only sadness. Sadness for Constance on her lonely island, collecting the stories of strangers, forever trapped between the two worlds to which she could never fully belong. For the restless young woman Letitia had been, sitting on this same bench, beneath the dome of this same telescope, sharing a small secret piece of her heart. For the little girl who had traced her fingers over maps and watched at rain-streaked windows for a carriage that never came.

“I could tell you more,” Aurelia said, “if you like. My mother had so many adventures, and even a short night can feel very long.”

Through the night they shared stories as Aurelia measured the stars. Aurelia spoke of her parents and eventually herself, her voyage south and how long she had yearned for it, and Constance told her about all the people who came to Asunder Island to study the stars or the Atrox, from those who stayed only a night to the others who went into the chasm and never returned. Aurelia could not bring herself to ask if there was a woman below with Constance’s pale face and freckles, human in form but birdlike in manner, thinking only sometimes about the hybrid daughter who lived above. Her curiosity was fierce, but it was not more important than allowing Constance the dignity of deciding what parts of herself to share.

Accompanying their voices was the ceaseless wind, the restless birds, the soft scratch of Aurelia’s pen. With every memory and every measurement she felt something untangle in her chest. The Summer Star had four close companions in the night sky, and she recorded the distance between each pair carefully, once in the book, again in her own journal. So much fuss for such a little speck of light, but for that night, in that place, the star was hers.

She made notes as new ideas occurred to her, planning the first of what she was sure would be many letters to the Royal Society. It was time to learn about spectra and prisms and the optics of starlight falling on earth, if she wanted to discover which direction the Summer Star was traveling. There was no reason to wait for somebody else to solve the problem for her.

Eventually dawn chased away the polar night and the stars faded. Constance had been quiet for some time; Aurelia had not noticed when their conversation faltered. She made a final note in her journal, rolled her tired shoulders and rubbed her eyes.

Her movement broke the quiet that had settled over the observatory. The old woman, still as a statue for hours, blurred into motion. Her legs unbent, her arms flashed. Aurelia saw yellow teeth, the red cave of her mouth, and before she could even catch a breath the old woman was gone, scurrying down the ladder like a spider on a web.

“She worries about them before they fly,” Constance said. “She likes to see them off.”

Her voice was mild, but Aurelia felt the words as a reprimand. She had scarcely been able to glance at the old woman, too afraid of staring, too absorbed in her own disgust. Had she looked closer she might have seen the concerned grandmother beneath the grime, the one for whom the colony below and the island above were only different rooms in the same house.

Constance banked the fire and doused the lamps. Aurelia blew on the book to dry the last of her ink. They closed the observatory dome and went into the cold, cold morning.

The Atrox were even louder outside. Aurelia stepped toward the chasm, but Constance stopped her with a hand on her arm. They stood shoulder to shoulder, backs to the sunrise, rocked by the wind. The sky was a painter’s canvas of pink and gray and orange, brush strokes untamed and beautiful.

Beyond the black shoulder of the island, beyond the chasm and the smoke and the gray waking sea, the Summer Star lowered itself toward the horizon. The sun rose, and Aurelia’s shadow stretched beside Constance’s, long inseparable spindles reaching to the crevice. A heartbeat, a held breath —

The Atrox took flight.

They exploded from the chasm in a fury of thunder and black wings. The gust knocked Aurelia backwards — hot, scented of sulfur and fire. The noise was deafening. The birds whirled in a long spiral, blanketing the island in shadow. The sky was a shroud of wings and reptilian yellow eyes. Claws, curled. Heads angled toward the sky.

Aurelia’s heart was racing. She began to shiver. She felt impossibly light, freed from gravity. All she had to do was raise her arms and she would soar as well.

The cloud of birds lifted and dawn returned, and with it the shimmering sea. The last Atrox beat their way out of the chasm to follow the black cloud to the west, to their star, the Summer Star, their noise and their stench fading as they raced away. The flock became a puff of coal smoke, a thread of black silk, and the sky swallowed it in a flash of impossible starlight. The birds were gone. The Summer Star had set.

“They’re lovely, aren’t they?” said Constance softly.

Aurelia had no answer. Weight returned to her limbs, pressed her feet to the ground. She hesitated too long, pulled herself back to earth too slowly, and Constance was turning toward the stone cottage.

“Wait,” Aurelia called.

Constance stopped.

“You can come with me.”

Constance tilted her head, an unnervingly birdlike motion. “Come with you?”

“To England. To London. You don’t have to stay here. Come with me.”

In the dawn light the faint lines on Constance’s face stood out as shadows. “You’re very kind,” she said. She tugged her shawl over shoulder, hiding the wing that would never carry her to the sky. “It was so lovely visiting with you, but you had best hurry to the beach. The sea is rough today. They’ll be wanting to take you away soon.”

She disappeared into the hut.

Aurelia looked at the closed door for a long moment, seized by indecision. She could run after her, pound on the planks, convince Constance of her sincerity. Prove the disgust and pity she had felt was gone — but it was a selfish impulse. Constance was not a child, however young she looked. She did not need Aurelia’s approval, nor her rescue. Aurelia turned her back to the village in a confusion of disappointment and relief, sensations unmoored by the morning wind.

The trail to the beach was littered with black feathers. Aurelia collected a handful and tucked them into her satchel. They were unexpectedly sharp, pricking her skin like nettles. Mr. Davies had neglected to describe the physical properties of the feathers in his monograph. She would have to write her own account — her interaction with the Atrox was limited, to be sure, but she could at least mention the feathers.

She had scarcely considered what might come after her journey’s purpose was fulfilled. She had been following the footsteps of others, looking to affirm what they had already discovered. She could not remember why she had ever thought challenging Lord Petterdown would have been enough. He was only a man, a diversion in a world of wonders. There were truths yet to discover about that odd outcast star that sat so uneasily in the night sky, questions pressing at the back of her throat. Asunder Island sat alone at the end of the world, but an end was not so very different from a beginning.

motion-pull3But that was for tomorrow. Today she would return to the ship, and Aunt Theo would check her calculations and chuckle in her deep alto voice, and she would propose a toast: to proving the men of the Royal Society wrong, to humiliating Lord Petterdown, to unladylike curiosity and scientific inquiry, to questions with answers waiting to be found. To the excitement of traveling the world and the comfort of returning home. They would drink the cognac Theo had been reserving for this occasion, and they would drink more, and as the warm sleepy flush spread, Aurelia would tell Theo about Constance and Letitia’s lost island in the South Pacific. Theo’s eyes would soften with surprise, and it wouldn’t be as difficult as Aurelia had always imagined it to be, to allow Letitia to shine again for moments between them, as infuriating and impossible as she had been in life.

And they would toast again, Aurelia to her mother, Theo to her sister, to the life she had lived in the only way she knew how, to sailing their own oceans to do the same. They would toast to one journey ending and another beginning, and because Letitia would have laughed they would laugh as well, their voices small in the heart of the sea.

Clouds crawled across the sky. The ocean was choppy and flecked with white. Aurelia picked her way down the steep slope to the beach. She drew her scarf over her nose and watched the dinghy appear as a black speck in the distance.

end_of_story

kali_smaller

 

Kali Wallace studied geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. Her first novel will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in 2016. She lives in southern California.

List of Items in Leather Valise Found on Welby Crescent by Rachael Acks

Description: Dark brown leather valise, ~29,300 cubic centimeters in volume. Pigskin lining intact, beef leather exterior badly degraded. Waterlogged, and upon arrival sported a generous coating of rotting leaves. Remnants of blood were found on one exterior corner of the valise.

Contents:

1 packet of facial tissues, partially used

2 facial tissues, used, crumpled

1 day planner [see attached transcript for details] with regular appointments: Tuesday Sales Meeting, and AA Meeting

1 charger for Blackberry smartphone

3 tubes of lip balm, partially used (manufacturer: Chapstick; plain, plain, and cherry-flavored)

1 plain white number 10 envelope, opened, somewhat dirty, addressed to: A. R.

Contents of envelope:

1 ticket stub for Dr. Birrenbaum’s Stupendous Sideshow, with subtitle: Feel the Raw Power of the Ferocious Tiger Boy! Hear the Heartbreaking Song of the Bird Woman! Dream Darkly as You Gaze Upon the Siren!

1 condom wrapper, empty (manufacturer: Trojan)

1 flight feather, species unknown, golden in color, broken

1 gold wedding band

1 cameo (shell) image of unknown woman, inscribed with: In Loving Memory, broken

6 pens (5 ballpoint, 1 Parker brand fountain with gold nib)

1 Gold Rolex watch inscribed with: My darling A. R., love [scratched out and unreadable], perpetual movement shattered

1 Blackberry smartphone, broken [Note: See attached file for recovered contact list; no hits yet, messages left.]

3 pictures recovered from SIM card:

1) color, picture of newspaper photograph, portrait of woman similar to cameo image [Note: No facial match from missing persons.]

2) color, same woman on stage, wearing artificial wings composed of golden feathers

3) color, same woman, nude on blanket, manacle around one ankle, weeping [Note: Picture is blurry, appears to have been taken through glass.]

1 metal bottle screw-cap (manufacturer: Jack Daniels)

1 empty stainless steel hip flask, plain, cap broken

1 20-piece lockpick set (manufacturer: Tyro) in cloth case, three picks bent, two missing

1 Smith & Wesson M-31-1 revolver

5 .32 bullets

1 Weekly World News (date: 21.9.16) folded to page three on article with headline: Bird Woman on the Loose! [Note: In the article, the “Bird Woman” is said to have escaped from Dr. Birrenbaum’s Stupendous Sideshow, injuring a security guard in the process, and be at large in the Rotterdam woods.]

1 “fortune” from fortune cookie (manufacturer: Feizou), reading: If you love something, let it go.

3 red maple leaves [Note: different species from those found coating the outside of the valise]

1 flight feather, species unknown, golden in color, unbroken

1 heart, mother of pearl, unbroken

fin

Interview with the author, Rachael Acks | Buy Shimmer #19 | Subscribe

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. FerebeePeter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

The next birds were larger: larks and grackles. They crawled their way not just out of the dirt round Elyse’s own house, the old Devereaux homestead, but farther out west, towards the town of St. Auburn. When Elyse drove down for her week’s worth of groceries, she could see the holes by the sides of the fields, the raw earth scuffed up and still teeming with worm-life. The birds picked at the worms for their meals, pulling them like long threads from a sweater, unweaving their bodies’ hard wet work. Sometimes the corn had died in patterns close to the holes, like it had been burned.

Elyse thought the town’s new sheriff would notice, and he turned up just as the grackles gave way to magpies. His old police cruiser ground in the driveway, wheels spinning on rock, a sound she knew, and she went out on the front porch to meet him. She was barefoot. She did not like to wear shoes. An old superstition; she had not outgrown it.

“Sheriff,” she said.

He squinted through sunlight. Did not approach her. “Miss Mayhew.”

“Is there something I can help you with?”

She was aware of the way she must look to his eye: her black hair tangled, autumn skin sunburned, the backs of her hands and her wrists cross-hatched where she’d scraped them rooting through cedar and yew. She would have put on a whiter dress, she thought, something less hedge-witching than wine-colored cotton—but no, let him see it, the darker stains on it.

“Some strange reports,” he said. “What you might call violations.”

A magpie took flight over his head: black-and-white plumage precise and foreign. The sheriff raised his hand in a gesture to ward off ill luck—then caught himself. Still, he tracked the bird on the skyline.

“One for sorrow,” Elyse said.

“Hell of a lot more than one in town. If you’ll excuse my saying.”

She held his gaze, thought about staring him down. She couldn’t, though, summon up the anger. She toed the peeling paint of the porch. “It’s not my work,” she said. “You know that. And he’s under the dirt.”

“Still,” he said. He had keen eyes, blue eyes. Hair the sandy color of birch when you’d stripped all of the pale skin off it. And he gave her that same kind of stripped-plain look. “It’d be best if you scared the birds off.”

They both looked up, to the gabled rooftop. The brown slates of it were covered in birds, a shifting mass of dappled feathers. The house looked alive. Elyse heard a burst of song—a lark, she thought—and then another bird singing, and another bird, but none of the songs seemed quite complete. They quit mid-pitch, fell off too soon, as though the birds had not learned the notes yet; as though no one, in the places they had come from, had ever been able to teach them the tune.

“They’re birds,” Elyse said. She crossed her arms: final. “They’re not my creatures. They’ll do what birds do.”

But larger birds began to surface: a turkey vulture, a hawk or two. There was talk in St. Auburn about a condor. A farmer in Woodbine shot a goose, and turned up on Elyse’s doorstep.

“Cut it open,” he said, “to clean out the soft parts. For cooking. Found a letter addressed to you.” He held out the letter: blood-stained and wrinkled. It hadn’t been opened.

Elyse looked down and knew what spindly hand had written that address. She touched the paper, dry as the rue she kept hanging over her kitchen counters. It was a special kind of lacewing dryness. It made her think of insects that moved in the summer night, all wings and shadows. They might have been ten thousand years in the tomb by the time she found them, all lifeless. Just tinder. She swept them off of the porch with a broom, thinking how they had been wet with life once.

The farmer said, “Do you want the feathers?”

Startled, she looked up.

“The bones and feathers. I saved the most of the bird for you.”

He was a shy man, with that shut country look to his face, and she took the bones and feathers because she didn’t know what else to do. All of it fit in one plastic bag: a mass of down and sinew, so light now that the meat was not on it.

She waved goodbye to the farmer’s truck. It bounced down towards the two-line blacktop. She could see black birds circle over the cornfields. The bright of the sun turned their wings to fishhooks. She could not say if they were crows or vultures. The wind sighed; dust stirred, and the corn moved.

Later she sat and read the letter. The lamp in the kitchen wrote a curve on the whitewood top of the breakfast table. The letter, when she held it up to the light, was marked with blood through and through. She could still read the writing, crooked and narrow.

My dear Elyse,

I write from the ocean. I cannot know what messages have reached you. Perhaps you do not know there is an ocean. I mean the ocean that is here, not the Atlantic or the Pacific or any such body. The body here is not seawater. It is dark in your hand, and the double moons cast no kind of reflection on it. Sometimes I can see fish in the water, or some things that look like fish, the color of fish if you peeled the skin off them, but they move so fast they drop from view.

I am never hungry here, and I don’t drink the water. I lie in the well of the boat to sleep, but it seems sleep is not of this country. I watch the stars. They still turn in a wheel, the strange stars I wrote you about. And sometimes I sail past the shapes of islands and see lanterns on them—are they lanterns? is that the word?—and I hear voices, but not any human voices. The lanterns scatter when I come near.

I think about you, the stroke of an eyebrow, the shell of an ear, the map of your hairline. That long uncharted archipelago you make with all the parts of your spine. There is nothing I forget about you.

Peter

When she was done, she folded the page back in segments. She poured herself a finger of whiskey and drank it just out of the lamplight. Dusk had gone and darkness was settled. Insects were pocking their bodies on glass, trying to come in out of the night. Peter’s work boots were still in the corner. She had not moved them in his absence. The mud on them had long since dried. Flakes had cracked off of the leather like skin. Tomorrow, she thought, she would put them outside; out on the porch, maybe clean the soles. Prise the mud off with a pocketknife.

She slept sitting up in the velvet armchair. Her mother had told her that when witches died in the old days, no one who’d seen or known them would sleep in a straight-bed for a fortnight, for fear that the witch would sit on their chest and steal the breath from them. Elyse had tried to picture this: the witch pressing his ghost against a body, trying to get what was inside. She had thought, I just want to press my body against another body, when I’m a witch and I die. But she knew bodies did not work like this; had known it already when she was a child.

In the morning, the sheriff was on her porch step. His hat was in his hands. He stood up fast when he heard the door open. “Miss Mayhew,” he said.

She was wearing a gray cotton dress with flowers. The weight of her long black hair was wet. She still felt scrubbed-clean, unshelled by the shower. She didn’t want to face a man like that. She put Peter’s boots down on the porch boards, rested a hand on her hip. “Sheriff,” she said. “Have you come to arrest me?”

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee“No, ma’am.” He put his hat back on his head; went around to his car and opened the trunk. He came back with a white swan in his hands. It was dead: there was blood still on its chest-feathers, gone dark now, not that living red. She could see the place where the bullet was in it. Its wings and its lithe neck drooped in death.

She reached out and put one hand on a wing. Lightly, only: the brush of her fingers. She didn’t want to trouble it.

“Fellow out in Marsdale brought it down. I figured you’d know what to do with it.” The sheriff fixed her with his gaze. His face was very patient.

“It’s not mine.”

“Never said it was. A letter, though, once it’s sent…”

Elyse said, “You spend too much time talking to farmers.” But she took the swan from him. It felt like a child, the weight in her arms. Cradling was what you called the motion. There was no other way to carry it.

She didn’t want the law in her house. There was lead and gunpowder lining the threshold, cloves over the door to guard against it. But she asked the sheriff, “Have you got a name?”

He paused halfway to turning. “Linden.”

“You’ll bring the birds?”

“When I find them.”

“Did you shoot this one down?” She hefted the swan a little.

He looked at her with those August sky eyes, like she was confusing to him. “No, ma’am. I never had much time for hunting birds.”

Elyse said, “Only men.”

Later she watched him drive off, the lone car on the road. It was early, still, and the air was cold. Autumn had started moving in: setting the first of its furniture up in the room that summer had not vacated.

There was no point to putting off unpleasant tasks. She set the swan on a broad cutting board and went to work dismantling it. The feathers went first, in matted handfuls, because she could make some use of them. Then she took the butchering knife and carved a space between the ribs. She had to snap the breastbone first. It was hard, the bone slippery in her grip. Even birds had such tough bones, bodies built for survival. She marveled at it. But when she got into the soft meat of organs, she found the letter almost at once, feeling for it with her fingertips. The same envelope, sealed and dirty; the same precise and crooked address.

She opened it and read it with the blood still on her hands.

Elyse,

I worry that time doesn’t pass for you the way it does here. I worry that I’ll get out of sync before I find you, before I find my way back. I told you about the birds in the forest, how they seemed to migrate so fast, so that one moment there were summer birds, then just starlings. And moss seemed to cover the bark of trees as I walked past. Like everything was living in motion. I saw a flower open and close. A fox get carried apart by ants, till all that was left was the bones of it. I want to date these letters somehow, but don’t think I can.

I am following the railroad out towards the ocean. There are no trains ever, only tracks. I see animals, but no other people. Sometimes lights very far in the distance, lights that look like cars in the dusk, driving on highways, out to the west. If there are train tracks, why not cars? But it makes me so sad to see them.

I miss our own quiet country road. I miss the unmarked settler graves you found along it, that summer that we went bone-hunting. You were the one who could find the dead where the ground hid them under its skin. You are a better witch than I was. I admit it. I miss the way you smelled of witchcraft. Soot on your fingertips, sage and hyssop, sweet dock and cedar tips. Even in the thick of the forest, nothing here has a scent.

Be safe and know I am trying to reach you.

Peter

Elyse put the letter beside its cousin, in a box she had once kept recipes in. She finished stripping the swan of feathers and set them aside. The meat and bones and skin she took outside and laid in the garden, hoping wolves would come to eat at it—the skinny wolves that haunted the fields, gray interlopers. Being a witch, Elyse had nothing to fear from their presence. The townsfolk objected, were frightened of them. But Peter had had the gift of wolf-speaking, and when Elyse saw their black shapes in the night, the glint of their eyes, she thought of him.

Out in the yard, she saw new hollows, places where birds were still breaking the surface. The roof of her house was thick and busy. A crane landed for a moment, ghostly white legs crooked and graceful, then flourished its wings and was flying again. Elyse could not think why the sheriff had spared her. By rights, she should have been taken in; the birds were evidence of witching, and this was the place they had marked as their home. Men had been put in the ground for less; she would know. She would know.

She cleaned off the cutting board in the kitchen; made a sandwich, cut it in two. The whole house smelled of blood and magic. She could hear the birds on the roof. For a long time, when Peter went into the ground, she had not eaten. It had been hard to swallow, hard to chew; hard even to take the knives from their drawers, to knead the bread, measure coffee to brew. This was not a widow’s grief, or not all of it; green onions, when she touched them, sprouted anew, and eggs cracked, and the yolks crawled out on the counter. Potatoes sent out new roots. A leg of lamb once pulsed with blood. She feared what her hands might do, while something in her reached for resurrection. It was easier not to touch food.

The wolves left rabbits out on her doorstep. A whole deer once, its eyes still dark, its dun skin soft and smooth. Wolves, she thought, had simple thoughts. Hunger, not-hunger, and sometimes the moon.

The sheriff—newly appointed—had brought a casserole. From the ladies down at Mission Valley, he said. Then another day: from the ladies at St. Jude’s. Elyse had thought they came from the same kitchen.

“Charity,” she’d said: scornful in her anger.

He’d shrugged: awkward in the new uniform. “It’s just food.”

Now she ate in hard little bites. A hummingbird floated at the window, all dark green chest and nose like a needle. It was too small to carry a letter, she thought. Maybe just the tiniest rune, written down on a thin strip of paper, wrapped round its heart. Or the very same rune, cut into the fluttering muscle. Carved in one motion: a word, a wound.

She drove into town. The neighbors were watching. She wore her best dress: bright red, with a plume of flowers that spread up across her chest. Her hair was unbrushed; it frayed like a spume of water just breaking off the ocean. She’d thought for a moment of going barefoot; instead, wore Peter’s old work boots. She shopped through the aisles of the little co-op, ignoring the whispers. Her feet were heavy, and she liked it; felt knobbly and wild, substantial, good.

In frozen foods, a woman stared: somebody’s mother or grandmother, in a lime-green-colored cardigan and laced white tennis shoes. The cashier, through heavy eyelashes, kept sneaking furtive looks. She didn’t want to touch Elyse’s money, not at first; then grabbed it in one rushed fistful and shoved it under the register’s hooks, breathing out in one heavy exhale.

Outside, Elyse leant against the store and ate an apple. Scattered birds came and sat at her feet. The wind, when it blew, had a charred spark to it: the scent of autumn or witching or both, embers blossoming, ashy and new. She licked her lips. The apple was still green, sour.

A car pulled up, dust-covered: the sheriff. He rolled down his window. “Miss Mayhew.”

“Linden,” she said.

“You have an audience.” He nodded at the birds.

“Everywhere.”

He rummaged in the passenger seat for a moment; came back with a bundle of letters that he held out in the air. “Got something for you.”

She stepped forward to take it. There were five or six letters, she thought. Hard to tell. Her fingers were sticky from the apple. Her hand brushed the sheriff’s. She glanced at him.

“Told folks to bring in what they find. They ought to pay me for delivering your mail,” he said.

Elyse didn’t know what to say. She said, “I appreciate the gesture.”

The sheriff shrugged. “Any idea when this might end?”

“The letters?”

“The birds. The whole damn uncanny.”

She moved back, minding her feet round the birds. Some rose in a rush; one perched on her shoulder. “I’m not doing it,” she said.

“I know that. Just hunting around for some insight.” He started to roll up his window, then paused. “Got a cider tree in my backyard, been giving up apples early. If you like them. I don’t have much use for so many.”

Elyse looked down at the core in her hand. She could see her own teethmarks in the white flesh. “I’d like that,” she said.

“I’ll bring some around with the next batch of letters.”

He left. Elyse watched. The bird on her shoulder toyed with an uncoiled strand of her hair. She brushed it aside, harsh and impatient. Witches had to be careful with hair, with toenails and blood, with bones and eyelashes; leave any part of yourself, unaware, and someone, somewhere, would set it against you. Burn what you shed: that was the lesson. She combed her thick hair back with her fingers, feeling its mass, its thousand snares.

At dusk, she lit a lamp with witch-fire and sat on the porch. Moths came crawling through still air, and clicking junebugs with hard little bodies. A few fireflies made themselves signal flares. Elyse sipped wine from a solid glass jam jar; unfolded the letters.

Beloved Elyse,

There is a road that leads down to the sea. I have to believe that it’s the way out, the one. I have to believe.

Seagulls keep circling as I walk. It’s winter here already. But things keep pushing up through the snow; not plants, exactly. I can’t ever seem to get warmer or colder, but I feel it in objects: the ice, the heat. I never thought I would miss the chill, but I do; I think of when I would run alongside the wolves, in December or January, and come home to find the house full of warmth. You at the kitchen sink: peeling rosemary leaves from the stalk, slicing ginger, the smell prickling.

I never see another person. I wonder where they all must be? No ferrymen, even; no toll-takers. Only me. I write these letters to keep words alive. It gets strange when I don’t speak. I forgot the name for an arum lily the other day; couldn’t think of it, just couldn’t—think. Then I worried I’d get like the wolves. There’d be a wilderness that I couldn’t come in from. You’d be inside a warm scented house. I’d come to the window; I’d press my cheek just there, against the pane of glass. But you wouldn’t ever let me inside. By then I’d be just claws and teeth.

Don’t lock me out, O arum lily. O rose of Sharon, don’t forget me.

Peter

She put that letter to one side. She didn’t want to go on with the rest. She didn’t know if she had the strength. A moth batted up against her hand. She nudged it away gently. The witch-fire burned with a red-moon light inside its lamp, wavering. Out in the dark, a nightingale called. There was no answer. The silence waited; went on waiting.

At last she stood and gathered the letters. She would read them, she thought, when she was in bed. She doused the lamp and went indoors. The air was sticky: the end of summer. It promised no easy sleep.

Elyse,

I cannot remember the names of colors. I put my ear to the railroad tracks and hear a rumbling. Something moves under the earth, a light or a dark thing. Do you think that if I die in this place, I’ll go in the ground and find another country, just a little bit dimmer and stranger than this one? I don’t want to die again, Elyse.

At night here the stars are very thick, and I think that none of the animals sleep. I hear them moving out in the forest. Pacing, clawing; the stir of air when they breathe…

Distant, silent, surly, beautiful, so-dream-like Elyse,

Sometimes I think I could walk on this water. The world here is flat and like a dream. I walked on water once before—you remember—the old mill pond—handspan insects—Spanish moss drooping—soaking our socks right up to the ankles. It smelled like a color. Cut vegetables. Herb beds. Dowsing rods. Grave digging. But how could I make the spell last so long here? You’re far from me; I see how far. It just stretches on, the sea. Sea, is what we used to call it.

I see catamarans out on the horizon. Catamarans: is that the word I mean? Something floating, something with sails. It looked like a cut lily. Then I was homesick, crying for you, but I can’t cry in this country. I make the motion but no tears come. What is the name for that kind of motion? It isn’t a color. It tastes of salt. It’s like and not like breathing. I know you’ll remember the word for it…

Elyse,

I woke in the dark green wild of a forest, filled with birds, all migrating…

It rained for a week, and the birds started dying. The sky up over the fields was blue—not the cloudless blue of an arid August, but a peat-smoke color. Peter’s blue. His eyes had once been almost that color. Elyse waited to feel melancholy.

The rain was a steady, scouring fall. It turned dirt to muck and washed out seeds that Elyse had planted in the herb garden. She went out to eye the ongoing damage. Her blouse and skirt plastered flat under siege; her hair stuck to her face and shoulders. She wiped the water out of her eyes and saw two dead birds: a crow and a starling. They were lying feet-up by the lemon verbena. Rain had distorted the shape of their wings.

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. FerebeeElyse scraped them into a cardboard shoebox and brought them inside. They did not smell like anything: not particularly of death, nor even of herb beds. No worms or beetle-marks could be seen. When she touched them, Elyse could feel the echo of witchcraft under their feathers, very faintly. She resisted the urge to cut them open, to check for letters. If every bird had a letter, she thought—all the sparrows and larks, the nightingales, all the geese, every bird that had crawled its way up… She imagined the envelopes moldering in boxes, more than she could ever read.

The next day she found three more birds in the front yard: three grackles, dead, with storm-battered wings. She picked them up, carried them to the porch by the hooks of their little clawed feet. Over yonder the crust of the earth was upset, by the root of a live oak tree, where another bird was scrabbling to surface. Its curved beak poked up. A kestrel, she thought, or some kind of hawk.

It was still raining.

The sheriff came by one morning, early, when Elyse was still asleep. Later she woke and went out on the porch. A milk crate of apples was waiting, and a grocery sack filled with water-stained letters. The apples were small and hard, but sweet-smelling. She rolled one in the palm of her hand. Broke its skin with her teeth. It tasted like autumn, red and familiar. A note on the crate said:

Hope didn’t wake you. Harvest good. Need to talk re: plague of birds. Will swing by later this wk.

She smiled, and was mystified by the motion. She touched her hand to her lips, her cheek. The smile remained. She finished the apple, bemused, watching the branches of wide trees bow in the rain. She could see on them the tips of autumn, leaves beginning to shine like copper. Soon the whole would be ablaze.

She carried the apples indoors to the kitchen, thought of pie-making. The letters she left in their bag on the porch. They could hardly get more battered or wet. She left the door open to smell the rain. Clouds shifted on the far horizon. The light got darker, then lighter again. She went barefoot all day, enjoying the feeling, the thrill of the first cold starting to set.

Nineteen birds died in the garden that week. She picked them up and stowed them in boxes; set them on the porch with the rest.

It was dusk when the sheriff drove up the gravel. The clouds had cleared, but the twilight was heavy: damp and filled with swollen scents. Elyse sat on the edge of the porch. There was mud on the narrow crests of her ankles. She drank cider cold from a jar in her hand.

The sheriff approached. He said, “Storm’s broken.”

“Not much of a storm.”

“You say that, and yet I got a river over in Woodbine’s been flooding. Water up all the way to the town line. Carrying off houses. Power’s down.”

“Is it.” She’d never had much use for that kind of power.

“Funny thing: lot of dead birds in that flood. Not just river birds. Eagles. Cactus wrens. Your fair number of sparrows, seeing as lately we’re overrun.” His eyes strayed to the back of the porch, where the bodies of all the dead birds sat. Elyse had not bothered to cover them over. She had found that the wolves and the foxes and vultures were not interested in them, not unless she took out the heart, took the witchcraft and made them just birds again. They took up a lot of room on the porch. She’d stopped counting them.

“Seems you have a problem yourself,” the sheriff said.

Elyse took a sip of murky cider. “Why don’t you sit down,” she said.

He did: settling long legs on the porch stoop. She offered him the mason jar. He drank from it and grimaced. “Are those my apples?”

“Put to good use.”

“I remember them having less of a kick.”

They sat in silence for a while. Moths moved in the early darkness. A mourning dove uttered a short sad cry and plunged to its death, pale gray and not particularly graceful. Neither Elyse nor the sheriff paid much mind to it.

“They’ll all die eventually,” Elyse said. “It’s in their nature.”

“And then? They die, but they don’t go away. Can’t seem to burn or bury ’em.”

She didn’t know how to answer that statement.

He sighed. “I was real sorry about what happened to your husband.”

“It’s the law. He knew the risk he ran.”

“And you?”

“The witch woman of Auburn County?” She laughed. The sound rasped her throat. “If you’ve come for repenting—”

“No.” He drank again from the jar. “I was there that day at the station. You know.”

“I knew you might have been.”

“I should have done something. I wanted to.”

Elyse pushed one bare toe down in the dirt. The rain had left it rich and wet. “They planted quick-tree—witchbane—all around his grave so witches can’t come near. Standard procedure. Can’t even visit.”

“They don’t want him coming back.”

“He’s not coming back,” Elyse said. She covered her mouth.

“No,” the sheriff said.

She felt his hand on her hand in the dark. Just a touch, nothing more or less.

She asked, “So what the hell do I do with all these birds?”

He laughed: a low and gentle sound. “Have you considered witchcraft?”

“It’s against the law.”

“I promise not to look.”

He stood up and turned his back, placing his broad hands over his eyes. A joke.

“No,” Elyse said. “Look. I want you to look.”

It was almost night by then, but she could still see his face. He leveled his curious eyes on her. She walked out in the yard and picked up the dove. It was still slightly warm, like a stone in summer, ghosting with heat when the sun has gone down. She could feel the magic inside it, inert.

“I can’t bring them to life,” she said. “Not in a way you would want. The witchcraft doesn’t work like that. I don’t think they were real birds to start with, you know. Just other things made into flesh.”

“Sure seem real enough when they’re eating the sweet corn. They’ve got bones and blood, don’t they?”

“Lots of things have that.” She thought of Peter, lost somewhere on his ocean, long underground. For a moment she felt his lips on her neck, his breath against her collarbone. But he was not really Peter anymore. He was speaking a language, a kind of wolf-language, that she had not learned yet.

She held the dove up close to her heart. A white glow started between her hands. There was no heat to it, no smell and no texture. Still, it made her flinch. She forced herself to hold very steady. She felt the dove fold up like paper. The weight of it lessened. When she opened her hands, there was nothing in them but pale gray ashes. Fistfuls of ashes, and bits of burned paper. She could see the ink on some of them. She let the wind take them out towards the cornfields. She wiped her hands against the skirt. The air smelled of witching, a mournful scent.

“There,” she said. “Just wishes and paper. Nothing to it.”

She looked at the sheriff. She thought he’d been crying. The magic sometimes took them like that. She affected not to see his expression. Men got odd. She leaned against the porch railing.

“I’ll have to do all of them, one by one. Better to get it done fast,” she said.

“You want to make a night of it?” His look was not very readable.

Elyse tilted her head. “You won’t be needed.”

“I know,” he said.

After a moment’s pause, she said, “It’ll be a long night, so you’d better come in, then. Have something to eat, find a place to set down.”

The doorway was still guarded by gunpowder. She broke the line of it as she passed. Later she could take down the cloves, unmark the lead; redo the witching, to keep out what needed keeping out, and keep in what needed keeping in.

Elyse,

It stretches so far, this scentless water. Every day I forget and forget. I wave to the flowers that drift in the distance. What is their name again? There was something I promised not to lose. I locked it in the cage of my chest. I can feel it there, like a bright-winged bird. But the bird is restless…

Elyse

Elyse. Elyse I. Everyday I think. Elyse. Elyse, Elyse: forget.

Sometimes a bird still struggles through to the surface, breath coming in unsteady gasps—even in the dead of winter. Elyse finds and carries them in her bare hands to the reed birdcage at the back of the house. They don’t live long. But she feeds raw seed to them, coaxing the life in them while she can. At night they sing (they are all songbirds) and when she wakes, she feels she can almost finish it: the last line of the song they are singing. She feels it in her bones, that coming warmth, the completeness.

fin

Interview with the author, K.M. Ferebee | Buy Shimmer #19 | Subscribe