Tag Archives: children

Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal

Your mama adjusted her face mask and checked the chronometer on her eyepiece. Darn it. The filter would only be good for another fifteen minutes. She was nowhere near finished with the job. And this particular theft would fetch a good price on the energy market, what with the price of methane.

She slid the siphon tube across to the capture valve and turned on the suction pump. If your mama could get most of the gas into the polysteel tank on her back…

The filter in her mask failed. A rank, heavy scent of sulfur and dead moss burned into her sinuses. Your mama’s eyes watered. She pressed the filter against her face, trying to snug it up or eke out a few more minutes. The smell only grew stronger, moving past eggs, and into the bowels of hell itself.

Gagging, she hit the retract button on the siphon. No amount of credits was worth this. Methane or no. Energy crisis or no. Your mama would rather steal diamonds than deal with one more fart job.

She broke like the wind, and ran.

 You watch your mama through the bathroom doorway. In one hand, she’s holding a plunger; the other is sheathed in a dripping rubber glove. Her shoulders are slumped. She sees you, and points at the toilet. “Really?”

Coming out of the wormhole, your mama felt along the sensors leading from her brain housing to the detectors on the ship’s skin. Really, it was the outer hull, but to her the background radiation of space felt like wind on her skin. Almost.

“Location. Lunar orbit around the planet Earth.” She opened a viewport for her passenger.

He gasped. “That’s no moon.”

Her sensor showed nothing out of the ordinary. “We are in lunar orbit.”

“Yes, yes, but something else is, too.” He leaned closer to the viewport. “Can you not see it?”

“Negative.” Your mama adjusted her sensors along all frequencies, but still perceived nothing out of the ordinary. “It must be masking electronically. What are you seeing?”

“What appears to be a demolition ship.” He fiddled with the end of his towel and frowned. “The darn thing is glowing and—Bother.”

The destruction of the Earth was all too clear in her sensors, lighting up the inside of her brain like a firestorm. The radiation played over her skin and flared in her sensors.

“Damn.” He turned from the viewport. “Plot a new course…just pick someplace.”

She skipped back in the wormhole, and the dark closed around her until all that remained was the memory of warmth on her skin.

 In the rear view mirror of the car, you can only see your mama’s eyes. The heat is glaring through the windows and making your skin stick to the vinyl seats with sweat. She’s glaring at you. “I’m not just a taxi service, you know.”

The difficulty wasn’t breaking into the Cambridge library, it was in finding the right piece of microfilm. Your mama pretended to straighten the back seam of her stockings as a librarian went by. Her informant had left the nuclear codes on a piece of microfilm in a dead drop, which seemed like a good idea before they began to recatalog the collection.

The librarian went into the restricted area, and your mama slid a foot into the door to stop it. She counted to ten, so the librarian would be clear, and went in. From there, it was just a matter of slipping through the stacks until she reached the rare books. Who would have expected a children’s book to wind up here?

Footsteps alerted her, and your mama snatched the volume off the shelf. Pulling her gun from its holster in her garter, she pressed herself against the shelves and crept to the end of the aisle. With the massive shelves masking her, she waited until the librarian walked past, head down in a book.

Letting out a sigh, she tucked her gun back in its place and turned her attention to the book. The microfilm was in the spine, so all your mama had to do was pull it out and… there.

She had the codes from the Soviets. No doubt, they would be seriously annoyed to have been thwarted by England’s spy network. And, of course, a signed first edition of Peter Pan.

Your mama put the book back on the shelf. And now, she would slip out of the library and head straight on ’til morning.

 You have nowhere to hide. Your mama holds your report card and the book you’d hidden it in. She is slowly shaking her head. “Do you want to explain this to me?”

Your mama stared at the moon through the viewport of the space station. The goddamn airlock was jammed. How the hell was she supposed to get outside before the change hit without the key? And who thought that a chain was a good idea for an airlock? Her bones ached. The inside of her spacesuit was starting to chafe.

Right. She didn’t necessarily need the key; all she had to do was break the chain. The catch was that if she waited long enough for the lycanthropy to shift her to wolf state, with the necessary strength to break the chain, then the helmet probably wouldn’t fit her. Growling, and knowing that was a bad sign, your mama stepped back from the airlock. She had another hour, at least, before the moon swung far enough in its orbit to be fully in the light of the sun and out of the Earth’s shadow. So, who would have locked the door? Because it turned out that she really did need the key. Sheppard? Grissom? Arm—Armstrong.

Baring her teeth, your mama pushed off the airlock and shot down the corridor to Armstrong’s cubby. “Did you chain the airlock?”

“Um.”

“Do you want me to tear your throat out?”

“Um.”

“Give me the fucking key.” Your mama’s fangs were showing and caught on her upper lip. She reached out, snatched the key from his shaking hand. With a snarl, she jammed her helmet on, past her lengthening snout, and fled to the dark side of the moon and her humanity.

 You tiptoe through the room so you don’t wake your mama. Your mama got sick once a month, but she always tells you not to worry. She lies on the sofa with a hot water bottle tucked against her stomach. When you bump a table, she cracks one eye. “Hey, sweetie, need anything?

The steam hissed around your mama and her dance master as they stepped out of the brass and oak cabinet of the time machine. This time, they had emerged in the alley behind the theater.

She looked to the right, where another incarnation of herself was hurrying to the theater for the audition. “Stop her!”

At her command, a brass automaton stepped out of the time machine and intercepted the previous her. Your mama turned her back on the cry of surprise from her former self.

“Come on.” She beckoned the dance master. “I want to get inside and warm up.”

Her dance master stared past her. “That was you?”

“Yes.” Your mama snapped and strode toward the theater.

“You were so young…”

“Young and inexperienced and I screwed up the most important audition of my life.” Even after all these years, the memory of falling off her pointe shoes still burned.

“Did you try again?” He wasn’t following her.

“I am now.” Why else would your mama have spent years building this time machine and working with the dance master?

“I mean…did you go to the spring audition?”

“How could I, after that humiliation?” She stared at her past self, who hung confused and frightened in the automaton’s grip.

“That’s…that’s what being a dancer is. Getting up and continuing. Everyone falls sometimes.” He stepped away, back to the girl she had been. “Would you like to go over your routine?”

“What are you doing?” Your mama put her hands on her hips. “You’re supposed to help me with my audition.”

“I am.” He shrugged. “This you is too old. She…She still has a chance.”

 Your mama hands you a tissue. “Don’t listen to them.” She ruffles your hair and her fingers are rough from work. “You can be anything you want to be. Okay? I believe in you.”

 

Mary Robinette Kowal. Portland, Oregon, February 2012.

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Glamourist Histories series of fantasy novels and a three time Hugo Award winner. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Tor.com, and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer, lives in Chicago. Visit her online at maryrobinettekowal.com.

 

Other Mothers:

Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport – It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed – Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves. Seven bridges straddle the river between First and Barton Road as it winds through a downtown of antique stores, the crepe-streamered American Legion, the purple house advertising tarot and palm readings.

The Fifth Gable, by Kay Chronister

The first woman to live in the four-gabled house fermented her unborn children in the wine cellar. When they came to term, she broke them open on the floorboards. Her heartiest son weighed half an ounce at birth. His face, curved to the shape of the Mason jar womb where he developed, stayed pink for an hour before he died in a puddle of formaldehyde and afterbirth.

The second woman to live in the four-gabled house pulled her children from the ground like stubborn roots. They came out of the soil smelling of pollen, with faces like tulips. They were healthy until she cut their stems, and then they withered. They returned reedy and gray-faced to the earth.

The third woman in the four-gabled house said she had no children.

The fourth woman in the four-gabled house built her children from the parts of old radios and tractors. Their cries sounded like the spinning of propellers. Some of them could blink and one could even smile, but breast milk fried their motors. In their mother’s arms, they dissolved into heaps of crackling wires.

The women had been married before, to ordinary men, but no one wanted to mention that in light of what happened to the children.

The women in the four-gabled house no longer got many visitors.

All through the month of September, the women in the four-gabled house watched as a sober, clean-faced young creature walked down their street, past their house, to the end of the cul-de-sac, then turned and walked back.

The stranger would not walk in a neighborhood as unfashionable as their neighborhood if she did not want something with the four-gabled house and the women who lived there, they were sure of it.

“We should call someone,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable of the four-gabled house. “Get a neighborhood watch together.”

“Nonsense. She’s probably selling magazine subscriptions,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable of the four-gabled house. “Or collecting bits of metal for the war effort, or trying to interest us in a quilting bee so the orphans can have blankets. Or she’s from some society that has asked her to come by our house, but the problem is that she’s just too scared to do it.”

“Are we still frightening?” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable of the four-gabled house. “I thought we’d gotten past that a few decades ago.”

“She’s a young girl in a fashionable hat,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “What could frighten her more than four old mothers with nary a man between them?”

“Well,” sniffed the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “If she ever came down to my cellar, she’d know real fright.”

September became October, October passed into November, and a damp, uncertain snow shimmered on the walks when the stranger came at last to the four-gabled house.

Her knock was hesitant, as if she feared to hurt the door.

The woman who made her bed in the first gable of the four-gabled house came to the door. The scent of myrrh clung to all her clothes and the damp of cellar walls clung to all her eyelids. She was the least approachable, so she always dealt with strangers.

“Please, may I come in?” said the stranger, and the woman who made her bed in the first gable thought for a moment, then nodded once, solemnly, and stepped aside.

The young woman crossed the foyer into the sitting room, where the other three women were waiting. “I’ve brought a pie for you,” she said, pushing a towel-covered dish at the most approachable person in the sitting room, which happened to be the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “I hope you like rhubarb.”

“Certainly,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, and while she smiled warmly, her hands trembled when she took the dish. “Thank you, dear.” She said dear after a long, conspicuous pause, as if correcting herself.

“My name is Marigold Hest,” said the stranger. “I wonder—do you know my husband?”

“I doubt it,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, at the same time that the woman who made her bed in the second gable said indignantly, “Should we?”

“Never mind that,” said Marigold. “In fact, I’m glad. It will make things simpler.” She sat for a moment, fidgeting with the brim of her hat, then huffed out a soft little breath and added, “I’ve heard that you have children here. I need one.”

“Do you think they fall out of the eaves?” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “What makes you believe we have a child for you? You’re a married woman—go get one off your husband.”

The young woman blushed as pink as rhubarb, but she persisted. “People talk about you. They say you used to be midwives, and now you’re witches. They say you’re descended from the women who they hung in Salem. They say you’re German and came to Amherst to seduce our men and spy on us. But I don’t care what you are. Somehow you get babies, lots of them. Please, let me have one.”

None of the women said anything for a long while. The woman who made her bed in the first gable of the four-gabled house raised her eyebrows. The woman who made her bed in the second gable stifled a laugh. The woman who made her bed in the third gable did nothing. At last, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable said, “And what sort of child is it that you’re wanting?”

“Any sort,” said Marigold. “Really, any one would do. As long as I can get it soon.”

“We’re not an assembly-line,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “Did someone tell you that we had… procured a baby for them?”

“No,” said Marigold, in a whisper that sounded more like yes.

“We wouldn’t,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “Ordinarily. Not out of selfishness… dear… but because we can’t.”

The others looked at her, noticing the word ordinarily and wondering if a stranger in a fashionable hat really counted as an exception. They had made an exception, once before. The exception was why the woman who made her bed in the third gable did not have children.

“But if you can try,” said Marigold. “If there’s any chance that you could get one for me, that would be better than no chance at all.”

“Why?” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. “You’re young yet. Do you need a child now?”

“I’m afraid to say,” said Marigold. “Must I say?”

“No,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, before anyone else could speak. “We will try. Let us try.”

The woman who made her bed in the fourth gable was the first to take up Marigold’s cause. She took apart the ice box for its metal, marooning a bottle of milk and a package of frozen vegetables so she would have the materials to begin constructing a child. Sighing in resignation, the other women prepared a meal with all of their perishable foods. This had happened before, with the lamps and the radiator and the toaster oven. Wartime made metal hard to come by. Scrap-metal children had been rationed almost out of existence.

“This could be my last,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. She had a spoonful of warm grape jelly in her mouth, a soldering iron warming in her hand. “For a while, anyway, this could be my last.”

The probable lastness of the child did not make him any more eager to survive.

When he was complete, a small frame of plated steel and plastic with a hungry gaping buzzsaw mouth, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable called Marigold to the house and laid the child in her arms.

“Oh,” Marigold said. “Oh. What a miracle he is.” She kissed the shining smooth metal of his face, and held him in her arms. She said already he felt like hers. And then she went away.

For three days, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable stayed there, weeping for the child she had abandoned to another woman, drinking cocoa made with curdled milk, listening to the radio: Little Orphan Annie had adventures twice daily; the president reported on the War only once, at five. On the third day Marigold brought the pile of wire and aluminum back to the four-gabled house, tucking him underneath her pea-coat to shield him from the wind. She wanted him buried properly; she wanted to go on pretending that he was a real child; she wanted to be told sorry.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house frowned and shook their heads. But they would not say sorry. They were glad to see that a young pretty stranger could not succeed where they always failed.

“A pity, that I could not make a better child,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. “But not, I suppose, a surprise.”

“A pity,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable.

“A pity,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable would not say anything.

They let Marigold bury the child; she had already purchased a headstone for him.

“Bury him anywhere you like. Just, please,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable, “not where water can reach him. He’ll fry if water reaches him.”

Marigold didn’t say what she thought, which was: he’s already dead, why should it matter what reaches him? She only nodded. She shifted his small body in her arms, and she handed the women a printed invitation to a wake that none of them would attend.

The woman who made her bed in the second gable felt a sort of pity for Marigold, now that the girl was grieving like the rest of them. That Marigold considered herself their superior, that she came to them in secret with her fashionable hat hiding her prim face, only made the girl more pathetic. She had not realized yet. She didn’t know. Some women simply aren’t meant for children.

The child that the woman who made her bed in the second gable made for Marigold would be a calla lily, with a decorative white face and a stem that wouldn’t wilt—at least not for a while. “Come twice a day and feed her,” she instructed Marigold, tipping a watering can over her own brood of children.

The wet soil darkened to a rich, nourished color. Marigold studied the ground attentively. “What is that you’re feeding them?”

“What does any mother feed her hungry infant?”

The girl’s eyes widened. She said, “I don’t believe I can do that, ma’am.”

“Don’t you ever call me ma’am,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “When your child pushes her way out of the ground, when she looks at you with her hungry mouth wide-open, then you’ll believe you can do it. The milk has to be yours, understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” said Marigold, cowed but unrepentant, watching as a row of robust, root-colored children uncurled their long tendril-arms and lifted their faces to the sun.

The woman who made her bed in the second gable had garden clippers that she kept in perfect condition. She polished them before and after use, kept them from rust, and removed them from their leather case for one reason only: to cut loose those children who had come to term. It was with great reluctance that she handed the clippers to Marigold, who cut her child out of the ground and then, minutes later, sent her back to it.

“It seems wrong to bury her where she grew,” Marigold whispered.

The clippers rested in the pocket of Marigold’s flannel skirt. With uncharacteristic gentleness, the woman who made her bed in the second gable took them and returned them to their leather case.

“We could try again,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable, but she said the words so Marigold would know she didn’t mean them. And Marigold, sniffling, obediently shook her head no.

“I think my husband suspected, after the first child,” she said. “Perhaps it’s a blessing that this one died so soon. It would be wrong to try again. Wouldn’t it?”

She wanted to be told: no, it’s not wrong. Let’s try. This time your child will not be fed on borrowed breast milk. This time you will not make a diagonal cut down your child’s stem, as if she is a flower you are preparing for a vase. This time you will be better.

“Years ago, I let them grow too long, and they hurt me,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. How many years, the girl would not know. “They made my insides ache. But I wanted them to stay with me longer, that’s why I did it. You don’t yet know what it feels like, to lose them again and again.”

“It must be dreadful,” said Marigold.

Later, she baked an apple tart. She smudged all the lipstick from her mouth and let her fashionable hat sit crooked on her head, and she sought the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house found each other in tabloids, then in Sunday papers, then finally in a medical journal that three times failed to pass a peer review. But before then, the woman who made her bed in the third gable had lived alone. And the house had only one gable, and she could bear no children.

To the woman who made her bed in the third gable, this was a tragedy.

To the rest of the world, it was a great relief.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable gasped in fright when Marigold came to her door. Visitors, when they came to the four-gabled house at all, never climbed the staircase to the rooms where the women made their beds. When the woman peeked around her bedroom door, she sighed softly in relief and stepped aside. Marigold removed her hat, then stepped over the threshold.

“Is that apple?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“Yes—a tart.” Marigold handed over the steaming dish as if she could not wait to be rid of it. The woman who made her bed in the third gable set the dish aside, and did not look in its direction again.

“I suppose you heard what happened to the last baby,” Marigold said, after a moment.

“I’m so sorry, dear,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, her voice quivering on the final word. “That must have been very hard for you.”

“Yes,” said Marigold. Then, steeling herself, she added, “I want to try again.”

“I’m afraid that’s how all her children come out… dear. They simply cannot survive without the earth to nourish them.”

“Not from her,” Marigold said. “From you. Please. It would mean the world to me.”

“How much is the world?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, frowning. She studied Marigold. “I’m not sure you’re ready to bear and bring up the sort of child I would make, dear.”

“When will I be ready?”

“There is one other woman in this household you have not asked for a child.”

“I had not thought she would say yes to me,” said Marigold. “I rather thought she disapproved of the whole thing.”

“She said no to you when you were young and childless. She did not want you to be happy. Now you have lost two children, and you ask her only for the chance to lose another.”

“So I will lose her child too?”

The woman who made her bed in the third gable would not say.

In the cellar, the air smelled like rust and formaldehyde and old gardenia petals. The temperature was many degrees lower than it was in the rest of the four-gabled house, and Marigold wrapped her coat tightly around herself as she descended the stairs. She had no tart or cake for the woman who made her bed in the first gable, for she suspected that nothing baked or roasted would satisfy such a woman, and she was right. The woman who made her bed in the first gable liked pickled things, things crunchy with salt and long-preserved, and she hated how fresh dough collapsed on her tongue. When she saw Marigold, she always thought of that fresh-dough feeling.

“I know already what you are coming to ask me,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable.

Marigold stepped down off the last step, making it squeak. “What will you say?”

“I don’t know yet,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “You’re not much of a mother so far, with your hat on straight and only two children in the ground. You don’t deserve my child.”

“And how many children do you have in the ground?” said Marigold.

“Two thousand, four hundred, and eighty-one,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “Some were twins,” she added.

“None lived?” Marigold said.

“None,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, with a touch of pride.

“Then I don’t think I want one of your children,” said Marigold.

“I don’t think you do,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, “I shall give you one.”

The woman who made her bed in the first gable no longer made her bed there. She holed up in the cellar with a block of brie and a feather-stuffed duvet, and she emerged only to wash her wine glass or collect the lukewarm cup of Earl Grey that the woman who made her bed in the third gable left out for her each afternoon.

The women did not like to interfere in each other’s creative processes, so none of them peeked down into the cellar. The woman who made her bed in the cellar did not care to discuss the child she was fermenting, though if she had, she would have told them that he was fashioned from the heart of a white rabbit, four dollars at the pet shop around the corner, and twice embalmed in myrrh and soda ash.

He had to grow in his mother’s womb, so she washed out the pie pan that Marigold had brought and sealed it with a glass cover.

Inside his tin womb, the child soaked and swelled and slowly became animate.

Inside her duvet, the woman who made her bed in the cellar dreamt of all the children she had lost inside her wombs.

The child reached such a size that he no longer fit inside the pie pan, then such a size that he no longer fit in a three-gallon pickle jar. The woman who made her bed in the cellar was stubborn, she wanted to see Marigold mourn, so she dug a hole, four feet deep, in the cellar’s dirt floor. When she was finished, she padded the floor with rock salt and lowered the child into the hole. February was halfway over, the temperatures were still low, and the cold and the salt would preserve the child for a few days more—long enough to make the girl believe, long enough to make her miserable when he rotted.

The woman who made her bed in the cellar did not always produce beautiful children, but this one was exquisite, a wet blood-colored salamander-like creature whose arteries worked like legs and whose eyes could see even in the depths of the cellar. In the womb of the earth he grew to three feet in length before he cried for release.

The woman who made her bed in the cellar telephoned Marigold to announce the child’s birth, knowing at half-past five her husband would be home, knowing that Marigold herself would be away at one of a dozen equally useless ladies’ society meetings and thus unable to intercept the call.

“Your son is crying for you,” said the woman who made her bed in the cellar, when a man answered.

She laid the phone down, waiting to feel satisfied, instead feeling hungry.

Before they had been women who lived in the four-gabled house, they had been:

A maiden aunt.

A minister’s wife.

A washed-up stage actress.

A nurse.

They did not resemble themselves anymore.

When Marigold came to the cellar, the woman who made her bed there had already left. The feather-stuffed duvet and frozen block of brie were gone; fourteen cups with shallow pools of Earl Gray in their bottoms remained. Marigold looked at each of the teacups, listened for her child’s cries, and felt reluctant to walk any closer to the dark end of the cellar.

Upstairs, the women who made their beds in the four-gabled house were making dinner.

Damp, rich sounds came from the dark end of the cellar and echoed off the brick walls until Marigold could not hear the banging of pots and pans upstairs, nor the record spinning on the player, nor even the sounds of the women’s voices.

She was afraid, but she would not leave the cellar without a son. She took up the iron bar propped up against the wall—she did not think, “someone might have put this bar there”; she thought very little—and walked forward until her child leapt up from the grave where he was born, four feet tall, hungry, hissing wetly at his mother.

Marigold swung the iron bar and struck the child in his moist, blood-colored forehead, then struck him again. She flew at him in such a fury that she did not stop to wonder what or who he was until he was already dead.

“Bury him yourself,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable when she heard. “Didn’t I already dig a suitable grave?”

“Won’t you have some shepherd’s pie before you go back down there, dear?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

Buttered baguette slices, tin cups of milk, heaping cuts of pie: a good meal by ration standards, a good meal even by pre-war standards, and they had ruined it for her. The women smiled proudly at their visitor.

“I suppose I might have a little,” Marigold said, polite in her fashionable hat, black blood drying on her hands.

When all five plates were empty, the other women retired to their gables. The woman who made her bed in the third gable washed each plate, carefully, methodically, while her guest waited at the table.

Then she said, “It hurt to lose that one, didn’t it, dear?”

“Yes,” Marigold whispered. “It was my fault, this time.”

“You’re ready now,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, “for the sort of child I could give you.”

“I don’t know if I can bear the pain of another child,” said Marigold.

“I know,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. She dried the final plate and wiped her hands clean on her apron, then made for the staircase. “Come along now, dear.”

“Where are we going?” said Marigold.

“The fifth gable,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “We’ll need privacy.”

Marigold’s husband waited at home for the arrival of their adopted son. Marigold could not leave empty-handed. Marigold was unaccustomed to wanting something that once lost could not be regained. She followed the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

The fifth gable was smaller than the others, drafty, the walls windowless. A vase of dying gardenias rested on a small end table in the corner. The gardenias had been wilting for longer than Marigold had been alive, which comforted the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“Sit down,” the woman said, motioning to the armchair in the middle of the room. A thin layer of dust covered its seat and arms and high, narrow back. Marigold settled into the chair and held her crumpled hat in her lap like it was a small and ill-behaved dog.

“Do you expect you’ll have to be tied down for this bit?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“What are you going to do?” said Marigold.

“Oh, I do very little, dear,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “You said you wanted a child, any child, isn’t that right?”

“Ye-es,” said Marigold, in a lilting voice that sounded more like no.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable got to her knees and rested her clasped hands in Marigold’s lap, as if comforting, as if pleading. “Whatever else you do, dear, remember to blame yourself.”

She rose to her feet and turned and left, locking the door from the outside.

Inside the fifth gable of the four-gabled house, dampness became cold and dimness became darkness, and Marigold’s skin felt like wax beneath her fingers when she tried to rub her gooseflesh off.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house buried Marigold’s cellar child together, all but the woman who made her bed in the first gable, because she could not make herself look at the mangled body of the child she had made.

“We should sing a hymn,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable.

“Why?” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable.

“It’s conventional. She’d like that.”

The women contemplated the idea of being conventional for a while. Their eyes lost focus as they studied the raised mound of earth with the cellar child inside.

“He was such a fine boy,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “But I’m glad she hurt him, I must admit.”

The woman who made her bed in the third gable could only bear children in the womb of another woman’s suffering.

Marigold came from the fifth gable of the four-gabled house looking smaller, with hair like straw. The women had a luxurious breakfast prepared for her, butter on the toast and sugar for the coffee. Marigold stirred cream into her coffee with one hand and supported her squalling, red-faced child in the other.

“A hideous creature,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, after Marigold and the child had gone. “No offense.”

“None taken,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “He wasn’t really mine. None of them have been.”

“If you made me one, he would be different,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “My hurt would be the furthest thing from hers, and the child who came from it would be strong and strange and proud.”

“Perhaps in a few years,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “You haven’t felt enough yet. I couldn’t be sure of the outcome if you hadn’t felt enough yet.”

And the woman who made her bed in the first gable knew this to be true, having seen many dozens of the small dead fish-like things that came from half-felt suffering. She could not rush suffering, so she returned to her cellar and shut her door and set to work on her next child. This time, she thought, perhaps she would love them enough. Perhaps they would hurt her so deeply that she could at last ascend to the fifth gable and bear a child that would live.

end-of-story-nov

Kay Chronister ‘s fiction has appeared in
Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clarkesworld.
She lives in Seattle with her miniature
dachshund, Victor Hugo.

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Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow

There were signs. There are always signs when the world ends.

In the winter of 1929, Imogene Hale found her well-water turned to viscous black oil, which clotted to tar by the following Monday. A year later, my Uncle Emmett’s fields came up in knots of blue-dusted prairie grass rather than the Silver King sweetcorn he seeded. Fresh-paved roads turned pock-marked and dented as the moon. Tractor oil hardened to grit and glitter, like ground glass.

dust01In 1932, the dust began to blow and it never stopped. That was the only sign the rest of the world seemed interested in, especially once some of our dirt rained on Mr. Roosevelt’s head in D.C. and turned his morning milk an ugly pinky-brown. Then it was suddenly a bona fide Natural Disaster. Newspapers all over the country worried about THE BLACK BLIZZARDS OF THE MIDWEST, and asked WILL WE BE NEXT?

The newspapers didn’t mention the tractor oil or the bad seed. They didn’t say how sometimes you looked south through the haze and saw pale green hills where there weren’t hills before, like distant cities made of moss, and felt a strange pressing on your limbs as if some vast, unseen force were pushing you away from the land you worked. I guess they didn’t believe it. I don’t blame them. I barely believed it myself.

Until I found you, babygirl. Until you came back to me.

Now, I know people find babies sometimes and it doesn’t mean the world’s ending. It usually just means some poor girl found herself in a bad way and made her child a raft of reeds and floated him downriver, or left him on a doorstep. Babies are pretty ordinary in the grand scheme of things.

But she wasn’t ordinary. I was walking the field—field being a relative term, nobody in their right mind could’ve seen those scraggled stalks sticking up from the ground like dry-rotted teeth and recognized it for a field—and there she was. Naked as a turnip, the color of dust. Nestled among the broken wheat like she’d grown there all spring, sage-bright eyes waiting just for me.

I had time to think oh, babygirl, I missed you, and then I was back home, kneeling on the floor, clutching her to my chest and heaving with hurt. My tears caked into salted mud on my cheeks. Where they landed on her cinnamon skin they seeped like rain into cracked earth.

Babygirl, I missed you. Why did you go? I carried you seven long months, right below my heart, and then you up and left me before I could even give you a name. And I was all alone with nothing for company but this damn dust that chatters and whispers to me in my sleep.

In D.C. all those smart folks and science-types got together and published a thin blue pamphlet that said exactly why our dirt had risen up like a great red ghost and whistled away from us. They used words like “dryland farming” and “over-plowed,” and I’m no great shakes at reading but I know when I’m being blamed for the end of the world. Like we should’ve known better than to plant our wheat right in the belly of the country, and harvest and plow and plant again, like we’d been warned and this was God’s own retribution for our arrogance.

Horseshit, Uncle Emmett would say. The rain follows the plow, that’s what they said when he came west to farm his plot of prairie grass and bluestem. He plowed and plowed and the rain stopped coming, and now the people follow the rain.

The pamphlet also gave us a five step system to prevent further erosion. John and I tried our best to follow the directions, and so did our neighbors. When your fields stand barren and the wind whispers ugly truths in your ears and all your fresh milk goes sour overnight, there’s not much you won’t try.

1. Terrace Your Fields! Have you ever tried to pile dust into terraces? It’s like building a sandcastle out of sugar in a windstorm.

2. Irrigate Regularly! We laughed and laughed when we read that one, John and me. We shook our fists at the hazed orange sky and advised it to irrigate regularly. But John’s laughter turned to coughing, and we fell into silence that wasn’t silence because even on a clear day you heard the dust shush-shushing over the ground.

3. Build Windbreaks! John tried. I helped, but I was pretty far along by then and he didn’t like to see me hauling pallets in the noon heat, leaning them against our old fence line. Get gone, he told me, in that false-rough way of his. That’s what I liked about him the first time I set eyes on him—he had that stoic, hardscrabble jaw, like every other man in western Kansas, but John’s eyes were laughing eyes. Bull-thistle blue, crimped in brown lines at their edges.

The next morning our windbreaks were splintered and scattered, strewn across the land in queer jagged shapes. We didn’t try again.

4. Let the Land Rest! We figured that was another way of saying: Leave. The soil you remember, the soil you used to run your fingers through like wet black coffee grounds when you were a girl, has gone away and you ought to follow it. I wish we had. I wish John and I and our babygirl were lying in an orange grove in south Georgia, and the world was bright green and blue like it is on the label of FAULTLESS BRAND FRUIT SALAD.

5. Keep Your Chin Up! There is nothing more galling in the world than somebody better off than you telling you to keep your chin up. Imagine Mr. Ford pausing beside the bread line and advising those poor hungry-eyed bastards to keep their chins up. I cursed a blue streak the first time I read it.

The second time, I took a match to it and tossed the ashes into the wind. Maybe it ended up back in the East and turned the President’s milk char-black.

That was after John drowned in the blood and mud of his own lungs. It was the middle of a storm, one of the boiling black ones that lasted days, so I just sat and sat at the kitchen table because there was nowhere to go, no one to tell, nothing but the sound of dust slithering like a great snake across the tin. I hoped it would slide down through the rafters and swallow me whole.

I should’ve remembered to eat, babygirl. I know that now. I should’ve slept. I should have curled around the tiny flutter of your heart and kept you safe and stopped the bleeding, and when you slid red and purple-white into the world, small as a crow, I should have fought for you. Instead I just sat, dizzy and dull, listening to the dust.

But you came back to me. I don’t know how because I buried you and John deep as I could in the hardpan, but maybe the ones we love best come back to us. Maybe John is walking towards me right now, out of those distant green hills.

dust02


Charity Glover and the ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses arrived at some ungodly hour the next morning to check up on me. The way vultures like to check up on roadkill. They’d been coming once a week since the bad storm, clucking and shuffling and leaving pies with the crusts cut just so.

“Good morning, Mrs. Dawley,” chirped Charity. She always seemed to swallow the second half of the missus, like she still couldn’t believe I’d married a penniless tenant-farmer and she was giving me the chance to undo it now. “And how are we to—”

She saw the red-cotton bundle in my arms. One little fist waved cheerily at her. The ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses stood still as hens with a hawkshadow overhead.

“Where—oh, Selma, where did you get that baby?”

Did she think I’d stolen her? I knew they didn’t like me much, because I refused to join their club and only went to Church about every fifth or fifteenth Sunday, but Jesus H. “I found her.” I made my voice flat as cold iron.

The other women shuffled, but Charity was made of sterner stuff. “Where, dear?”

I found her in the dust, but she’s mine, I know she is—from dust to dust, isn’t that how it goes? “In the wheatfield. To the south.”

I watched her face, white as an undercooked pancake, turn whiter. All the trouble seemed to come up from the south, from those wavering green hills we tried to ignore.

Imogene Hale opened her mouth and closed it. She finally got out, “And just what do you intend to do with it?”

“I don’t see how that’s a damn bit of your business, Imogene,” I spat. That temper, John used to tell me, it’ll get you in trouble one day. I made myself smile in that softening way, like a woman overworked who just didn’t know what she’s saying, bless her heart. “I just mean she was left on my land, and that makes her my trouble.” They knew about the sovereignty of property lines. “I guess I intend to take care of her.”

Charity pasted a matching smile on her face. They fluttered amongst themselves and produced a pot pie and a jar of pickled beans in a basket. A little blue pamphlet stuck out of it like a flag. “You can get the basket back to me on Sunday,” said Charity. “And I noticed you didn’t come by the Post Office so I brought you the new Better Farming booklet. Read it close, now.”

They scampered back through the rust-colored yard and left us alone to watch the sun swim up from its bloody sea, dim and distant.

I should have asked about spare milk; I’d dried up weeks ago and the baby from the field wasn’t very interested in powdered milk warmed on the stove top. She’d howled until tiny tears gathered like dewdrops at the corners of her eyes and I’d given up in disgust with myself, a woman near thirty who didn’t know how to care for a baby.

She was mewling now. I repeated the powdered milk experiment inside. She spat it out, unrepentant eyes glowing scrub-green.

You must’ve got that anger from me, babygirl. Your Daddy would laugh and laugh if he were here.

I flipped through Better Farming: Strategies for Soil Conservation in the Drought-Affected Areas, rather than curl up on the floor and cry myself sick. The booklet was the same waste of ink and pulp it was before, but there were six steps now.

6. Don’t be afraid! However, should you encounter any unusual events or irregularities, DO NOT ENGAGE. Report them to your Extension Agent IMMEDIATELY.

Apparently somebody official, somebody with a nice corner office in a government building, believed in our portents. The horseshoes rusting to dust overnight, the apple trees turning to chalky stone, the green mirages in the south. And he didn’t like them much.

The wailing sharpened, burrowing like a bonesaw into my chest. A dull, pressing ache began in my breasts, thump-thumping with my heartbeat, and dampness dotted my dress like two tears. I unbuttoned, but it wasn’t cream-colored milk leaking from me. This liquid was clear as rainwater. I touched my fingers to my breast, licked the water from them—it tasted of low-hanging clouds and morning dew, the spring thunderstorms that no longer rolled across the flats. The baby watched with animal-hungry eyes. I pulled her to me, and she suckled like a fawn after a too-long night.

I watched the rainwater gathering at the corners of her red-earth lips and doubt came to me for the first time. She looked so alien, so inhuman, nothing at all like the baby I’d carried in my belly. Prairie-colored eyes flicked up to me, as if they were trying to tell me something, to send me some obscure message in an unfamiliar language.

No, no that isn’t so. You’re my babygirl. You just need to learn how to live here with me, in this dear, dry, dying world.

That Sunday I dressed her in a laced frock the color of old pearls. It made her dark skin seem darker, like dust after rain. (Do you like it? I made it for you, when you still lived beneath my heart.) I wore my best dress and we walked to town under a sky as blue and fragile as bird’s eggs. The wind rose around my ankles, hissing up from the south.

After John died I was a regular at Church, sitting in the back pew waiting for God to come down from his cloud-covered castle and explain why I’d lost my love and my firstborn. Isn’t that kind of thing usually reserved for His enemies? But He never arrived and I grew tired of the sweaty smell of desperation.

That day, I was just going for the pure spite of it. I wanted to show Charity and her hens I wasn’t afraid of them or their damn pamphlet, the way you’d stamp your foot to scare off hungry cats. I wanted to march in with my chin up and my eyes blazing and show them my babygirl, safe in my arms.

I lingered in the open doorway just long enough for heads to crane around, for silence to flutter like a white curtain around us. I smiled a brazen, biting smile with twenty extra teeth that didn’t belong in Church. The heads flicked back towards the pulpit, except for one old man with a bright ring of white hair. Uncle Emmett. I didn’t look at him as I passed.

We sat in the very front pew. In my arms, the baby shifted and tugged in discomfort. Her back arched against my arms. I tried to look like a good mother, with the kind of child who didn’t drink rainwater, whose eyes weren’t green and distant as the hills.

By the time Preacher Jacob stumped his way to the front and began his usual list of announcements, he was speaking over a discontented whine issuing from my arms. He ignored it. Preachers are good at turning their cheeks away from you.

“Now, folks—” He always slipped a “folks” somewhere towards the beginning of his sermons, like a politician. “It seems to me that it’s time to talk about the battle each and every one of us is fighting, against our great enemy—the one great enemy, he who Peter called a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” I felt the congregation lean towards him like moths to a match.

The baby squirmed more forcefully in my arms.

“But I fear we do not see the lion, even as he stalks among us. We see his works and call them uncanny, or strange, or irregular. We dismiss them. But I would remind you that there are only TWO POWERS IN THIS WORLD—” His audience rippled in pleasurable shock, “—yes, that’s right, ONLY TWO POWERS. There is OUR LORD GOD ALMIGHTY, and there is our ENEMY.”

Eyes pressed against the back of my head. The baby wailed. I wished we were both curled in our quilts at home.

The preacher turned slowly until he faced me. From the first pew I could see the dampness of his hands clamping the lectern, his pupils like distant dead stars, but I imagined it looked more impressive from further away. “And I advise us now to PUT ON THE WHOLE ARMOR OF GOD, that we may STAND AGAINST THE WILES OF THE DEVIL—”

And my babygirl let out a sound like a screech owl at midnight. A wild, fey sound that made every hair stand on end. I stood and walked as fast as a woman can walk without running, eyes burning me like lit cigarettes as I passed.

The wind outside was already meaner and grittier, the fragile blue of the sky rotting to a crusted old-blood color. The door opened and someone shuffled out.

“Selma.”

I wanted to ignore him, or spit in his wrinkled walnut face. But Uncle Emmett was the first one to come by the house after that black storm. He found a ragged husk of a woman lying in the field beside two fresh-dug graves, certain the world had already ended. Instead of hollering for help, he sat down in the dust with me and kept vigil until dusk. Until I decided I didn’t want to die of stubbornness, clinging to the dead bones of the world I’d loved. Until I decided only cowards believed in the end of the world. I owed him for that.

“Selma, don’t you mind Preacher Jacob and his malice.”

“I don’t.”

“Well.” He stepped forward, peered into the blankets to see her springtime eyes watching him solemnly. “As it happens, I think he’s got it wrong this time. I don’t think either of the two powers he was talking about made the dust rise, or sent this baby. Which means there’s some third power. An old, strange one.”

“And here I thought you were a Christian.”

“After a fashion. But what was here before we brought Christ? Just a dead, empty grassland, without a miracle in sight? Horseshit.” I’d never much worried what was here before me, or what came after. “I think whatever was here before—the buffalo, the lions and jack rabbits, Coyote himself—is tired of being forgot. Tired of being plowed and planted and plowed again without so much as a thank you, tired of fence lines and railroad tracks slicing her up like a goddamn jigsaw puzzle. And she’s setting it right.”

He nodded at the white-lace bundle in my arms. “And I figure she’s a part of it, someway or another.”

“No, she isn’t.” Don’t you listen to him, all right babygirl? I know you left me once, all alone except for the old-penny smell of my own blood, but you came back to me and you just haven’t learned yet how to be tame, how to be real. “She’s my daughter. John’s daughter.”

His weathered-wood hand touched my elbow. “What’s her name then, Selma? Call her by her right name.”

She didn’t have a name because I never gave her one, but—

I remembered saying her name long before she was born, when my belly was a soft swell. Bad luck, John said, but he didn’t mean it and I kissed him where his eyes crinkled into crow’s feet. I’d named her, used a bent nail to scratch it into the cross over her grave—

I looked south where the once-green horizon boiled like black tar.

“You better get in there and tell them, Emmett. The dust is rising.”

dust03I ran and the dust ran behind me, shuddering over the dry fields and tossing the earth into the air, playful and cruel as a cat. Red and black swirled around us. I looked down to see her face bright and wild in the wind, her mouth opening to the dust and letting in pour in, her arms waving as though the dirt were a part of her own queer world and she was glad to see it.

Oh Lord, what are you?

The house was dark, the windows alive with black whorls of dust, faint clouds filtering soft as snow through every crack. I laid her on the bed and began the feverish ritual of tying curtains closed and jamming pillows against the door jams, feeling my mouth turn to mud. When I finished we were a pair of pill bugs curled in the dark with the air stale and hot around us.

I know your name, don’t I?

I used to whisper your name as I watered my little kitchen garden, my line of coffee cans trying to protect the soft green shoots in their bellies. I said it as I fell asleep on black nights when every single star was eaten up by dust. I said it to you, do you remember it? I called you—

Her eyes were locked on mine, green with secrets and the silhouettes of cities on the horizon.

“Helena,” I tried to say, but the word tangled in my throat like a calf in barbed wire. It thrashed and fell still.

You’re not my babygirl, are you?

My babygirl died. I remember her tiny chest in my palm, shuddering up and down before the terrible, choking stillness. I remember wiping the blood and fluid off her arms, frail as sparrow wings, and tucking her in an old JC Penny box because I didn’t have anything else.

Helena was her name.

You don’t have a name. You’re not her.

Grief, in my experience, is a lot like dust. It turns food gritty and sour, it sifts onto your pillow as you sleep and burrows into every pore of skin, and you can never truly be rid of it. For a little while I thought I’d finally escaped it—I thought my babygirl came back—but I was wrong.

At dawn I found myself beached on the bed with the dust baby beside me, wet-lipped and watchful.

She blinked at me, solemn as a saint. The dust that settled on her dark limbs in the night was damp, as if she slept beneath a gentle patter or rain. She smelled of the springtimes of my childhood, walking through the fields and feeling the greenness of each wheat stalk unfurling beneath the soil.

She didn’t look much like the end of the world. She was too vital, too alive, and her eyes were pressing at me again as if there were some wordless message she wanted me to read, or an offer she extended.

I rolled away and pulled against the front door until it shhhhed through a drift of glittering dust and hung crooked against the light. The world outside had been remade in the night, sculpted into brown and red hills that shimmered dully in the dawn, beautiful and strange as the surface of a dead planet. It took me a while before I noticed it.

Our old Allis-Chalmers tractor reduced to a few thin iron bones. The ends of my hoe and digging spade rusted to gray dust. The hinges on the door behind me eaten away. There wasn’t a single piece of iron left untouched. The wind had come hissing up from the south and gnawed the metal to dust. On the horizon, that strange green-tinged city shone more clearly than I’d ever seen it.

It was then that I believed, for the first time, the storms would never stop. No matter how many windbreaks we built or how far up we kept our chins. Something out there—something old, something powerful—was through with us. It would peel us off the back of the land like a dog scratching away fleas, and the world would end.

But I’d decided once before, lying atop my husband’s grave and wishing I could sink through the earth to join him, that only cowards believed in the end of the world. It changes, sometimes brutally, and we can either change with it or die of stubbornness.

I stumbled back inside and curled again on the bed beside the dust baby. Is that it? Are we supposed to choose?

Maybe she was an ambassador sent from a neighboring country, offering one last chance for peace before the war. Perhaps if we learned to care for her, and for the wild, strange earth beneath our feet, things would come to a different end. The change might be less brutal. But I thought of Preacher Jacob, of the lean hate on the faces that turned towards me, and knew they’d made their choice.

And so had I.

I pulled the dust baby to me and unbuttoned my dress again. You’ll need that strength soon, dust baby. It won’t be long now.

It wasn’t. They came at dusk, a shambling crowd like a single many-legged beast trudging through the dust. I’d spent the day trailing my fingers over the familiar shapes of home, making furrows in the dust and staring south out my windows.

“Selma Dawley! We’d like a word!” Well, I could hardly lock them out, with no hinges or latch. “Bring that devil out with you.” I thought I recognized Mr. Glover’s voice. I bet Charity was standing at his elbow with her mouth all crimped up like a Christmas bow.

I gathered my few things and settled the dust baby into her crude sling. We faced them together, a horde with nothing left but a hot red thread of hate. Their farms had turned to deserts, their wells were dry, their tools had been eaten away in the night. People get mean, when their world ends.

Mr. Glover stepped towards me. I didn’t move. “Mrs. Dawley, I think you know why we’re here.” I did, but I wanted to hear somebody say it. Like a school ground dare. “We know that storm last night wasn’t natural. And that baby of yours, she isn’t either.” Mr. Glover floundered into silence. I looked for Uncle Emmett, but he wasn’t there. Good man. Somebody would surely tell him where I went, next day, and I pictured his wood-seamed face bending in hope.

Preacher Jacob bulled forward. I guess all that preaching gave him an aversion to silence. “We’re here to set it straight, to cast out our Enemy wherever he lives.” Nodding, shuffling, mean jaws clenching. “We’re calling on you to take that thing back where she came from. Right now.”

Well, they weren’t yet so red-eyed they’d swing an infant by her ankles and smash her skull against the doorframe, but they were teetering on the edge. They were all watching my face for something—rebellion or weakness or possibly Satanic possession—but they didn’t find anything.

I walked through them, barefoot out across the dust-drifted field, putting them at my back. Knobbled wheat stalks hid beneath the sliding dunes, turning my ankles beneath me. The wind tossed little handfuls of dust in my face. The baby in my arms waved her arms in unseemly delight.

Soon the townsfolk were nothing but smudged blurs behind me, wind-blown mirages like the city on the horizon. I passed the little hollow where I’d found the dust baby, but I didn’t stop.

You don’t even have a name. I gave my daughter a name—HELENA DAWLEY, 1934, it says above her grave—but it didn’t save her. Names are just prayers mothers make to the future, that the world will keep spinning on its axis, undying, for as long as you live.

It will, Dustbaby. I didn’t look back. Not once. You only look back if you’re leaving something behind, and all I was leaving was a dead world of neat-planted wheat rows and combines and fresh-paved roads lying like ropes across the land. We’d thought it would last forever. We’d thought we could plow the wild out of the west and build our lives from its sun-bleached bones.

But the wildness slid beneath the thin crust of cornrows and tractor tines, the way prairie fires sometimes dove down into the earth and burned unseen, waiting for months or years before rising and turning the sky red with its heat. I didn’t know what might grow back after the burning, only that I meant to rise from those ashes.

Don’t be afraid! Isn’t that what the pamphlet said?

The blue-green horizon in the south grew clearer and stranger as we walked towards it. The air smelled wild, like mud and stars. The dust beneath my feet began to feel cool and damp, with that almost-vibration that means live things burrowed and crawled and oozed somewhere beneath the surface. Tiny white flowers dotted the earth like constellations. One night, it rained.

They were signs. There are always signs, when the world changes.

end_of_story

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow

ALIX E. HARROW recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction on her blog and at Strange Horizons, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.

 

Return to Shimmer #27Become a Sparkly Badger

Good Girls, by Isabel Yap

This story contains scenes dealing with suicide and violence relating to infants, which some readers may find upsetting.

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You’ve denied the hunger for so long that when you transform tonight, it hurts more than usual. You twist all the way round, feel your insides slosh and snap as you detach. Your wings pierce your skin as you leave your lower half completely. A sharp pain rips through your guts, compounding the hunger. Drifting toward the open window, you carefully unfurl your wings. It’s an effort not to make a sound.

girls-pull1You’re a small girl, but it’s a small room, and though your boyfriend is snoring you can’t risk being caught. You look back at him, remembering how he’d breathed your name a few hours ago, pouring sweat as you arched beneath him – Kaye, baby, please. You wonder if he’ll say it that way when you eventually leave.

The half you’ve left behind is tucked in shadow: gray, muted pink where your intestines show through. The oversized shirt you’re wearing hides the worst of the guts that hang from your torso as you glide into the sticky night air. You suck in a deep breath as the living bodies of your housing complex flood your senses. A girl sobs in her bedroom while her father hammers at the door. A pair of elderly foreigners lie in each other’s arms. A stray dog licks its balls outside the iron gates while a security guard dozes in his cramped sitting room.

Manila is a city that sleeps only fitfully, and you love it and hate it for that reason.

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The first thing taught at the Bakersfield Good Girl Reformation Retreat is the pledge: “I’m a good girl. A good girl for a good world. And while I know it is not always easy to be good, I promise to at least try.” The girls are made to repeat this three times at orientation, and one girl seems moved enough to shout “Amen!” at the end. Or she could be mocking it; Sara can’t tell. The girls on either side of her are listless, mouthing the pledge without care or conviction. One scratches her knee then digs underneath her fingernails, puckering and unpuckering her mouth like a goldfish. Sara suspects she’s wearing a similar expression. She frowns and squints at the clear blue California sky, the same one from the home she was just forced to leave.

Afterward they’re herded onto the field for physical exercises and split into groups. Sara’s group starts running. She quits on the second lap out of five, short of breath and thinking nope, not worth it. She jogs off the field and is trying to disappear someplace when Captain Suzy, who is in charge of PE, catches sight of her. Captain Suzy frowns and starts heading for her, except the flag football team erupts in a hair-snatching free-for-all. Captain Suzy surges into the brawl and flings girls away from each other, so that by the end mud and grass is strewn everywhere and more than one girl has fainted from the heat.

Later, Sara learns the fight was because of a butterfly knife that someone had snuck in and stupidly showed off. Lots of girls wanted it.

They’re given Exploration time after lunch, with the stern reminder that they have to be prepared for Group Sharing (4:30 PM), followed by Journals (6 PM) in their respective rooms before Dinner (7 PM). After leaving the dining hall, Sara surveys the abandoned schoolhouse where all Good Girls are forced to stay. It’s mostly dusty classrooms with chalkboards. Tiny white bugs swirl in every sunbeam. Most chairs and tables are child-sized, and colored mats cover the floor. A mesh-wire fence circles the entire yard, and past it, a tall rusted gate. Beyond them lie endless fields, roasting under the sun. The fence is too tall to climb, and Sara is neither agile nor motivated. She heads back to her room and decides to Explore her bed.

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There are meals all over the Metro, so many routes to explore. You’ve mapped them out over years and months of nightly travels: countless delicacies, different treats for different moods. The only difference is your start point, your end point. You never last more than a few months in the same place. You always need to find someone new to take you in–to believe you’re human, just like them.

Tonight your hunger is confusing. You don’t know what you want, what will satiate you. You decide to start upscale and work your way down, so you veer toward the part of the city with its lights still on.

Music pulses loudly from a club. Three high school girls totter out on four-inch heels, standing awkwardly on the carpet to avoid the potholed road. One of them is holding a phone to her ear. A car comes up; a maid hops out of the front seat and opens the door for the girls, and they climb in, unsteady from lack of practice or too many vodka Sprites. You think about dancing, about what it’s like to occupy the skin of a beautiful party girl, something you can do with ease–-slipping into a bar with confidence, slipping out with someone’s fingers twined in yours, ready to point at the stars and laugh then lean in close for a kiss.

They can never smell the blood and sputum underneath the liquor in your breath. Humans make up wonderfully intricate rituals, pretend to have such control–-but they easily devolve into animal longing, just heartbeats flaring in their cage of skin and bones.

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Something is knocking at Sara’s door. A monster of some kind, an overgrown baby bleeding from the chest. Its clawed fist is tapping in a way that’s supposed to be quiet, almost polite-–then Sara realizes she’s asleep and scrambles out of bed.

She opens the door. It swings into the hallway and bumps into the girl standing there. “Sorry,” Sara says. Her shirt is soaked in sweat.

“No worries. I’m Kaye! Nice to meet you.” The girl’s hand is cold and dry in Sara’s gross sticky one.

“Sara,” Sara says. “So I guess we’re roommates?”

“Yep,” Kaye says. She is petite and gorgeous, with shiny black hair and flawless honey-colored skin. Asian, but Sara can’t guess which. She wears an easy, friendly grin as she wheels in her luggage. She stops to note which bed Sara has occupied, then throws her backpack onto the empty one.

Sara shuts the door and sits on her bed. She picks up her regulation Pen + Diary in a halfhearted effort to prep for Group Sharing, but ends up watching Kaye unpack instead. Kaye unzips her overstuffed luggage, displaying piles of neatly folded clothes and small colorful snacks: Sweet Corn, Salt and Vinegar Chips, Boy Bawang. Notebooks and papers are wedged between socks and shoes in plastic bags. Kaye fishes out a pair of slippers and slaps them on the floor triumphantly.

“So what’s your deal?” Sara asks, as Kaye peels off her shoes and socks and sticks her feet into the slippers.

“I eat fetuses,” Kaye replies. “If I feel like it, I eat organs too.”

Sara frowns and shuts her notebook. Kaye doesn’t elaborate, and starts sorting clothes on her bed. Sara leans forward so that she can better inspect Kaye’s luggage. There are stickers all over it. One says Fragile, another says Delta Airlines; three are written in Chinese Characters; two read Wow! Philippines. They’re faded, the edges picked off as if someone with long fingernails was extremely bored.

“You came from abroad?”

“A few months ago.” She opens a pack of chips and holds it out to Sara. Sara peers in; they look like shriveled corn kernels. She shakes her head.

“So you were flown all the way out here to stop eating babies,” Sara repeats. Her gut churns, and a voice in her brain goes no, no, no.

“Unborn babies,” Kaye clarifies. “But it’s not like I can help it.” She starts laying out her clothes on the bed, methodically. “I would tell you what they call me, but you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it anyway.”

“Try me,” Sara says.

Kaye smirks and rips out a page from her regulation Diary, then scribbles something on it. She holds it up for Sara to read.

“Manananggal?” Sara tries.

Kaye collapses onto her bed laughing.

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The sky is outlined by skyscrapers, some still in construction. A half-finished high-rise condo is fenced off with boards bearing the image of the newest starlet. She’s wearing a red dress, hair fetchingly arranged over one shoulder, glass of champagne in hand. The flowery script next to her head reads: Where luxury and comfort reside.

The giant open-air shopping complex next to it is almost empty. A few cafes remain lit, although the chairs inside are turned up. A barkada of young professionals staggers back to the parking lot, high on caffeine and the adrenaline of overwork. They are laughing louder than the silence calls for. One man swears he will kill their boss the following morning.

You like these declarations. They can only be made at this hour–-witching hour, your hour. You like them because they’re not true.

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The Group Sharing discussion leader is named Apple. Sara ends up on her right, legs curled on the pink-and-orange mat. Apple greets everyone with a giant smile, then takes attendance. There are five girls in the sharing group, including Kaye. Apple begins by saying how happy she is that everyone has come to the Good Girl Reformation Retreat, where all girls are expected to be supportive and encouraging in their journey toward goodness.

“In order to get to know one another better, I would like each of you to tell the group which particular circumstances brought you here. There is no need to be shy or secretive about it. While we know it is not always easy to be good, we are now at Retreat, and we are going to try.”

Tamika, seated on Apple’s left, starts: She knifed her last boyfriend in the ribs. Trang has a habit of setting small fires because they are very pretty. Lena stalked her favorite lab teacher and sent threatening messages to his wife. Dana doesn’t say anything, but she pulls up her shirt and shows everyone a scar that cuts across her extremely toned belly. Sara notices Kaye looking at the pinkish flesh marring Dana’s brown skin with a sad smile.

“You have to tell us, Dana,” Apple insists. Dana says, “It hurt,” and that’s all she can be persuaded to say.

“Maybe next time then,” Apple says, with too much hope. “And you, Kaye?”

“I was brought to the US to marry someone,” Kaye says, the perfect mix of defiant and ashamed. Someone gasps. Sara’s mouth drops open, but Kaye doesn’t notice, and adds: “I’m not as young as I look.” She gives a tiny, tired grin, before proceeding to tell them about the drug bust at her husband’s place, her illegal papers, how no one will pay for her flight back to Manila. How the US government took matters into its own hands, and sent her here. How she’s homesick and rattled and maybe it’s for the best that her husband of two months OD’ed, but really mostly she’s glad to just be here, it seems safe. Everyone nods solemnly, and Dana reaches out and holds Kaye’s shoulder, briefly.

Liar, Sara thinks, but no, this is the truth. Of course this is the truth, and Kaye was just messing with her. Kaye was just having a little fun.

Then suddenly Apple says, “Sara? What about you, Sara?”

“I-– “ Sara says, and wonders how she can explain.

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girls-pull2Manila’s gated communities, home to the rich and famous, swanky as fuck. You flap past some consulates, flags drooping from their balconies, but you’re not interested in foreign food today. You sweep closer, lower, appreciating the distinct features of each house: angels cut into columns, black iron gates with gold accents, circular driveways sweeping up to meticulously lit front doors. Gardens overflowing with gumamela blossoms and palm trees. All the houses are humming with electricity, air-conditioners running at full blast. The humans moving inside them are less electric: house-helpers clearing leftover party dishes, children stuck on their game consoles, everyone else asleep. It’s all boring boring boring until you smell tears–-so much sorrow in the saline–from the odd modest house, a little decrepit for the neighborhood. The sound of sniffling is amplified. You stop and circle the air with interest.

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Sara explains it like this:

“It started after I dropped my sister’s baby. Nobody knew if the baby would be okay. Then the baby was okay, after they’d checked it out at the doctors ‘cause everyone was convinced that the bruise was some kind of tumor. I was just playing with it. I just wanted to hold it for a little while. So anyway after that, I was forbidden to touch the baby. That was okay. I could deal with that.

“The problem was, I started always thinking about babies. Because a baby is this terrible, fragile thing, you know? And so many things can happen to it. I just kept theorizing: if you keep pushing your thumb into its head, won’t your thumb actually sink into its brain? Or if you hold it upside down for too long–-like those dads on TV you know, always swinging their babies around?—like, maybe all the blood fills up its little brain and it gets a mini-baby-stroke. It got so bad that whenever I saw a baby, any baby, I got the sense that, like-–me being alive–-like it could cause that baby to die. Them or me, you know, and why the hell should it be me?

“So I started thinking I should fix that. I started looking out of windows and thinking I’m better off-–you know–-out there. Like when I’m in a moving car. Or when I’m on the fourth floor corridor of my school building. I get this sense that I can jump out and all the babies in the world will be saved. I kept trying, but something would always stop me, and when they asked me what my problem was-–you see how hard it is to explain? So I would just tell them-–I want to fly. That’s all I could say. I want to fly.”

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She is pregnant, the private-school princess in her immaculate bedroom. The tiny thing growing inside her is incredibly fresh–-six or seven weeks old–-and she’s just found out, or just admitted it to herself. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s composing an email to her boyfriend, or maybe her best friend. She types in quick bursts, interspersed with falling on her bed and beating her pillow with impassioned fists. You imagine the taste of her child in your mouth; you consider sucking it up and sparing her the agony of waking tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be a mercy to this child? Not having to live with the shame of bearing her own, so young, and her parents so disappointed, and her schoolmates so ready to talk shit about her?

You settle on the roof, testing the tiles, positioning yourself above her bedroom.

Then she starts playing a Taylor Swift song. It’s blaring from her iTunes and she is wailing on the bed, and suddenly it’s so hilarious that you can’t bear to end it. Besides, you don’t want to wait for her to fall asleep. She might not fall asleep at all.

You sigh, take off again, and decide that it’s time for a change of scenery.

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“So that’s your story,” Sara says that night, eyes gazing into the pitch darkness (Lights out at 9, 9 is so early, do they think anyone can actually sleep at 9?). “Mail order bride. Drugs. Gross old man. That sounds really terrible, but that…makes more sense.”

“That’s why I’m here, but only you know the truth about me,” Kaye says, an undercurrent of laughter in her voice. She sits up in bed, looks across at Sara, and Sara’s just imagining the weird light reflecting in her irises. “Hey Sara, I’m glad the baby was okay, by the way. It wasn’t your fault you were careless. Well I mean, it kind of is, but can anyone really blame you? Babies are such fragile things. I don’t know why you girls keep having them.”

“Says the baby eater,” Sara says, with what she hopes is humor, but she’s exhausted and suddenly imagining a baby tumbling down the stairs.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Kaye laces her arms across her knees. “That’s okay. I only told you because I thought maybe you wouldn’t–-haha. If you did believe me you probably wouldn’t like me, and I’d have to say it’s in my nature, and then we’d fight, and god I’d have to leave again, when I’m not even hungry yet. When I’ve got nowhere to go.”

“You’re weird,” Sara says, because clearly Kaye is more messed up than she lets on.

Kaye laughs. There’s so much laughter in her, it surprises Sara. Kaye crosses the room and sits on the opposite end of Sara’s bed-–so quickly, suddenly she’s there and Sara sits up and draws her knees back reflexively. She should be freaked out, but after weeks of being treated like broken glass back home, in school–-this proximity is not entirely unwelcome. Everyone sidestepping the baby issue, Dad and Mom hissing about suicide treatment in the kitchen after dinner, her meager friends suddenly evaporating.

A person who treats her like she’s real? It’s an odd relief. Kaye leans closer. She smells nice, and her eyes crinkle.

“Tell me about your home,” Kaye says.

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You head for a shantytown: homes made of hollow blocks, roofs of corrugated metal. It’s hardly a mile from the fancy neighborhood. The nearby river is peaceful, although the banks are still torn up from the last typhoon. From a distance you can already smell people, piss, dogs with festering sores, wet grass, shit, washing detergent. The earth is always damp here, soaking up rain, and the proximity of the houses makes everything feel warmer, more alive.

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They do this nightly talking thing a lot, exchanging stories, doodling on each other’s Diaries then laughing and ripping out the pages. Then shushing each other. There’s no TV and no nail polish and no ovens to bake brownies in–-only these, their words, their memories.

Sara finds herself in Kaye’s beloved Manila: garish colors everywhere, clogged highways, grimy naked children running next to spotless cars, in which the bourgeoisie sit with a driver, a maid, sometimes a bodyguard. Sara doesn’t have much to say about her own suburban neighborhood in Pleasanton, but Kaye seems fascinated by America anyway, so Sara tries. She explains the difference between Democrats and Republicans, and the nuances of California slang: Hella bomb, they repeat. Hella sick.

Kaye describes the parts of the body she likes best–-she eats the fetus pretty much whole because it’s the tastiest (“I take it down my throat, and, uh…it’s a little hard to explain,”), then the heart, liver, stomach. Kidneys are surprising flavorful. It must be the bile.

When she talks about her monster self Sara just holds the thought apart from her brain. It’s too weird. It’s almost funny, how earnest Kaye is about it.

Sara recounts her sister’s wedding in Vegas, which they couldn’t really afford, but it was cool to act touristy and kitschy, posing next to the unsexy French maids in the Paris Hotel casino. It was stupid, and that’s what made it fun.

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You count the number of warm bodies in each house you pass, considering the possible damage. Family of four, six, another six, three (absent father), four (absent mother), five (including grandmother). That one won’t manage if you eat the mother, because Lola is sickly and Tatay beats the children. Interesting drama, but you seem to be craving something else. Entrails won’t do tonight–-you want a baby.

You’re enchanted by the amount of closeness you find in many homes: sweaty couples pressed together, children crowded on either side, useless electric fans whirring. It’s love and hunger bound up in acceptance, minute joys punctuated by a mostly typical dissatisfaction, the longing for something better, some way out of this.

They’re not exactly unhappy, despite everything. You think you understand that.

girls-pull3Very lightly, you settle on a gray roof with a gaping hole in the corner. You look down at the man and woman tangled and snoring on a bed, their two-year-old squashed between them. The scent of fresh mangoes is just enough to entice you. There’s only so much time left to properly enjoy your meal, so after a brief consideration you open your mouth and let your tongue slip through the ceiling.

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The Retreat is all routines. After the first day, it’s only variations on a theme, and it gets harder to remember when they started, although that’s what the Diaries are for. Sara isn’t too worried. It must be expensive to run the retreat. Girls come in batches, sponsored by donations, desperate family or community members, and government money; they can’t stay forever. Three weeks, she figures. Four. In the meantime: free food, thirty other girls that are just as fucked up as she is, and even the daily exercise is starting to become manageable.

She figures things out. The cooks are on rotation, and the one every third day actually makes edible food. If you wake up at 5 there’s still hot water left in the showers. It’s okay to walk quickly instead of running during laps, as long as you finish all five. Apple expects you to write at least a paragraph in your diary every day, or else you’ll have to do a long-ass recap at the end of the week. If only there was more to say.

Most girls stay in their rooms during off hours. If the retreat is for repentance, Sara’s not sure how effective it is. At night she can usually hear sobbing down the hall, or hard objects (bodies? heads?) smacking against the walls (sex? Fights? A mix?). Girls who act out are given warnings and punishments. There are no field trips, but they do painting and basket weaving, and learn an alarming number of songs in different languages. If not for the fact that someone always showed up for music class with a burst lip and a black eye, it would almost be like summer camp. Even the Captains turn nicer, only harsh when someone gripes about exercise or doesn’t finish her tossed greens.

Still, despite the moderated peace, restlessness is starting to build beneath the monotony. Someone claims that on their last day the teachers will clear out, and they’re going to gas the place, kill all the girls. It’s a stupid claim, but it has its effects.

“What the fuck are we doing here?” becomes a common question, a chant: in between tooth brushing, or eating soft-but-actually-hard rolls, or making honest-to-god charm bracelets.

Sara asks it, herself, sprawled out on her bed. It’s Going to be Okay! is the motivational statement Apple has assigned them this week. It’s pretty weak, as far as encouragement goes. “What the fuck are we doing here?”

She doesn’t really expect an answer, but Kaye says, “Learning to be good girls. Right?”

“Well when do we get to say okay already, I get it, I’m good?”

Kaye shrugs. “What are you going to do when you get out of here, anyway?”

Sara doesn’t answer, but she pictures it: going back, holding up her nephew triumphantly, the mediocre joy of normalcy after so much exposure to other people’s shit. So she’s thought about killing herself and has a weird thing about babies. She’s never actually hurt anyone. I’m not like these girls, she thinks, and it makes her feel both proud and disgusted. Then she sees herself climbing onto a balcony, feeling the salt edge of the wind, wondering if there’s still a part of her that wants to leave everything.

“Hey Sara. Were you serious about wanting to fly?”

Sara feels jolted. Kaye’s eyes are opaque on hers.

“What do you mean?” Her heartbeat quickens. Kaye smiles and looks out their window.

“You get to decide. Are you going to be good when you leave here? Are you going to turn out all right? You could, you know. You could. There’s no need to stop trying.” She stands and stretches, then clasps her hands over her stomach meaningfully. “But not me. I don’t get to pick. I never get to say I’m good. I can try, but I’m powerless against my hunger. I mean, we all need to eat sometimes, right?”

Sara swallows. Her saliva sticks in her throat. She isn’t afraid of Kaye. Kaye is her friend. Her gorgeous, crazy, baby-eating, compulsively lying friend.

Kaye crosses the room, lightning quick, until she is standing before Sara. The setting sun turns her face a weird shade of orange. She crouches down so that she’s level with Sara, stretched on her bed.

“You know,” she says, face contorting, like she’s holding back tears. “I’m getting hungry. I’m going to need to feed soon. Promise me something. We’re friends, right, Sara?”

Sara pauses, maybe too long, before nodding. Then, to increase her conviction: “Yeah. Of course.”

“When I feed–-promise me that you won’t care. You can just-–sleep. It doesn’t really change anything. I’ve always been this way, you know? And all you girls-–” she shakes her head, stops herself. “You do that for me, I’ll let you fly for one night. It’s nicer here than in Manila. It’s cooler.” She pats the top of Sara’s head. Which is funny, because she’s shorter than Sara.

“What do you think?” she asks. “I can fly, you know. I’m pretty fucking great at it.”

Sara thinks of falling, of landing on the pavement and hearing her shoulder shatter, seeing her own blood streak out past her vision. Her mother sobbing by her bed at the hospital, saying I can’t do this anymore, honey. It has to stop. And after being released, how she’d had no idea, how the van had come one day, and in a haze of anti-depressants she’d stepped onboard. She’d come here.

If Kaye could fly–-hold her, dance her through the air–-she’d be able to see. If it’s safe to go back. If she’s tired of being this way, at least for now.

But more than that, Kaye just wants her to pretend everything’s fine. She can do that. She’s had a lot of practice.

She reaches up and puts her hand on top of Kaye’s, not feeling scared or threatened or awed. Just tired. Bonesucked tired. She squeezes Kaye’s hand and says, “Okay.”

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Your tongue settles on her stomach, and you start feeding, sucking greedily. You’re starving, and it tastes so fucking delicious. The woman squirms, and the child next to her utters a short, soft moan. You don’t want this. You do.

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Sara wakes up sweating. It’s sometime past midnight? It’s too early. She needs to go back to sleep. She shuts her eyes. The sound of her breathing is too loud. She decides to get a glass of water and stumbles out of bed, bumping into something in the middle of the floor. She falls backwards, landing on her ass.

The window is open, the metal fastenings they installed after some girl attempted escape somehow undone. A cloudy moonbeam streams through it, illuminating the lower half of Kaye’s torso and her legs, her feet still in their slippers. It is standing erect, perfectly immobile, like someone sliced a girl in half and left it there for fun. The insides are shimmering, grisly, unreal.

Sara crawls back under her sheets and goes to sleep. Sometime later something slides in next to her, nudging for space on her pillow. Something wraps its arms around Sara and puts its forehead against the small of Sara’s back. Sara smells blood mixed with the faint tinge of–-mango?-–and after a moment’s hesitation, she holds those arms against her. The back of her shirt grows damp with what might be tears.

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When you’re finished, when you’ve shriveled up everything inside her stomach so that your own is full, you spool your tongue back into your mouth and breathe deeply. The horizon tells you that you have about an hour before the sun rises. That’s just enough time to head home, rejoin your lower half, shuffle back into bed. Good girls don’t get caught with babies in their bellies; good girls don’t lie; good girls don’t sneak out wearing only their boyfriends’ shirts.

You know what you are; you know what you aren’t.

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In their twentieth session, Apple says they’ve all been exceedingly Good Girls, and they’re going to be moving on the following week. The girls have demonstrated that they’ve absorbed the values of the retreat and are ready to rejoin the good world. Once Admin gets their paperwork done, the Captains do their sign-offs, and the discussion leaders file their reports-–the girls will be free.

“You get to go back home,” Kaye says, while they’re packing.

“So do you,” Sara says, but she’s suddenly not sure.

Kaye flashes her teeth, feral. “I told you, girl, I don’t have one. I go where the wind takes me!” She flings out her arms, dramatically, and flops backwards on her bed. “This was nice,” she says. “Even when it sucked it was okay. I should hang out with girls more. They don’t want as much from you as guys do. I can stay full for longer! Girls are like fiber.”

Sara doesn’t like the wistful tone in Kaye’s voice. Sara doesn’t like how her own heart squeezes, or how lonely she feels. How afraid she is of going home to find-–but no, it’ll be okay. She’s different now. She’s going to do better.

You get to decide, Kaye said. It’s not that easy. But she can try. Some girls will break their promises, lose their homes, keep on rattling against the gates, biting and sobbing and breathing. Sara, if she wants to, can change.

Kaye rolls over on her bed, arm covering her eyes. She lifts it to peer at Sara. “I still owe you. How about tonight?”

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You’ve never detached with someone watching. You’re so fascinated by her gaze on you that you hardly notice the pain. Sara’s big blue eyes are an excellent mirror–-how there are stringy bits when you twist off, how the way your spine tears from sinew is fluid, almost graceful. Your shirt is short this time so she sees your entrails hanging out, nearly glowing with all the slick against them.

To her credit, Sara doesn’t vomit. You move slowly over to the window, keeping your wings folded, and undo the latches with your knifelike fingers. You drift out and motion for her to stand on the desk. She climbs up, shakily, and says, “Can you really carry me?”

You like to think your smile, at least, is familiar-–even if the pointed tongue between your teeth isn’t.

“Yeah,” you say. “Trust me.” This is you: this is your life, the strength that fills you as you fly, feed, move on. Spanning provinces, cities, countries, continents. Finding new homes to leave, new bodies to keep you warm when you’re not hungry, new strangers to suck dry when you are. And you’ll keep on doing this, as long as you can make it back in time. Before the sun rises, or someone finds the parts you’ve left behind–-something must always be left behind.

This is how you survive.

Sara will get to go home. You’ll just have to find a new one.

“You ready?” The trees are crowding out most of the wind, but you can still taste the breeze, drifting over the dormitories where so many girls are sleeping like wolves, retreating from the world. Just waiting to bare their fangs.

Sara nods. You can’t read her expression–like she’s about to scream or laugh or cry. You squeeze her hand as hard as you can without hurting her, and spread your wings.

end_of_story

isabel

 

Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. This story is an ode to two places she calls home: Manila and California. Her work has appeared in The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010, Tor.com, Interfictions Online, and Nightmare Magazine. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is isalikeswords.wordpress.com.

 

 

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