Em did not dream the world. When the lights went out and the absence of her brother in the room across the hall became palpable, it was simply there, hanging in the space above her bed. She would stare at its invisible form, spinning silent and unseen, until she slept.
Her dreams were not always of the black planet. There were dreams of hospital rooms as well, and of the faces of her parents. Of the house that now was too large for the three of them to fill.
When the planet came and stole her from those dreams, it was almost a relief. The silence on the black world was a silence less oppressive. The darkness was welcome and warm. Em, in those nights, wandered its pitchy forests and walked the shores of surging, inky seas. There were mountains like rows of broken teeth, as though she had fallen into the weathered jawbone of a huge beast dead a million years, but it was only the world, immense and black under stars.
She did not speak of the planet to her parents. Everyone handled loss in different ways, she had been told. Besides, she could not be sure that the black planet had not always hung above her bed in the darkness. Maybe she had never noticed it before.
The only person she talked to about it was Jena, whose desk was beside her own in four of the six periods of the school day. Jena had come up through the science magnet, and she still either did not know or did not care that high school frowned upon certain enthusiasms.
“Everyone gets at least two,” Jena said when Em told her about the dark world. She wore the half-smile that indicated she expected questions. “Statistically, that is.”
“Two planets. Earth-like planets, specifically.” Astronomy class was a joke, but Jena had convinced her to take it. “Twenty billion in our galaxy alone.”
“Right. But I only have one.”
“And you see it when you go to sleep.”
“It is a planet.” Em paused. “Not much like Earth.”
Jena’s shirt had a picture of two robed figures in some kind of hover-car. It said, These aren’t the druids you’re looking for.
“But you could walk around and stuff on it, right?” Jena asked.
Em loved that she took her words for what they were. Jena didn’t look for hidden meanings, didn’t see a dead brother staring from every emotional nuance.
“Yeah,” Em answered. “But it was completely dark. No sun.”
That started Jena in on something called second-generation planets. It was difficult to follow. Lots of things Jena said were difficult to follow, but it was sometimes nice just to listen. She was saying something about planets forming after their suns died, planets orbiting pulsars or black holes.
“Of course there wouldn’t be life,” Jena concluded, chewing the end of a bright green pencil. “Unless it was based on thermal heat or chemical reactions.”
Em decided not to say anything about the forests. They made her nervous, with their tangled roots and restless limbs.
“Maybe everyone has one,” Em ventured. “If there are so many. Maybe everyone has a world, and they just don’t see them.”
Jena watched her.
“You said there are supposed to be enough in our galaxy for everyone to have two. Maybe we all do—one for the night and one for the day. Only we don’t always see them.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
“I wonder what happens to them when we die,” Em said softly. “A bunch of empty planets.”
When Em fell asleep, she felt she was falling. She fell down to the black planet, even as it spun above her as she lay on her bed. She fell to its surface if she did not snag on memories of her brother along the way, memories of the way he steepled his fingers when he spoke or angled his head at her when she came around behind him while he was reading. If she did not slip into memories and dreams, she fell to the planet.
On the surface, starlight gave little illumination to the landscape. The stars were tight and clustered above her.
If there were paths, she could not see them. She knew the forests were crowded with eyes, though she never heard movement among the trees, or the things that were the equivalent of trees here. After a time she realized the eyes belonged to the trees themselves. They had no leaves but millions of fingers, and they all bent away and let her pass as she walked.
She paused at the edge of a sea. The mountains were outlines against the golden blur Jena said must be the Milky Way. Jena said it must be the galaxy seen from much deeper within than they saw it in their own nights on the planet where Em’s brother was dead.
Em remembered a day when her brother had explained—a book with a picture of a prism on the cover propped carefully against the gauze on his chest—that things in a dark room did not have colors that could not be seen but that they had no color at all. He said darkness did not hide color but actually erased it.
Now she stood in the shadow of the forest and felt the world spin beneath her. The stars changed their position against the silhouette of trees.
After a time, she thought she heard someone calling.
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier.” Today Jena’s shirt bore a logo of a goblin riding a killer whale. The stylized caption beneath read Orc-Orca Alliance.
Em rubbed sleep from her eyes. She had been in the forest for weeks last night, it seemed. Now, in the passing period between classes, it was hard to concentrate.
“Tidal lock. It doesn’t have to be circling a black hole or wandering without a tether through space. Maybe you’re just always on the side facing away from the sun.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like the Earth’s moon.” Jena held a hand in front of her face, palm facing inward. “It’s locked with one side toward the Earth, so we never see the other.” She spun slowly in the hallway, keeping her palm facing toward her face. A few students stopped to watch. “Rotates at the same speed it revolves.”
“I saw the stars moving last night.”
It helped that Jena was good-looking. She could stand in the hallway between periods pirouetting like a lunatic and still earn approving glances from the junior and senior boys.
“They would still move, if it orbited fast enough. But it means maybe you’ve just always been on the dark side of it. Maybe you haven’t seen the day side yet.”
She shook her head. “It’s not like that, Jena. I’ve been all over it. It’s black all the way around.”
Jena shrugged. “I wish I could see it. If everyone has one, I should too. But maybe something has to happen to make you see yours.” She broke off, glancing at Em.
“There is no sun,” Em said again, to herself, as she shut the door to her locker.
There was nothing for Jena to see. That was the point. There was nothing to see at all. It was black. Em was in the forest again.
It was trying to tell her something. That was clear. It was not speaking with a voice; she had heard no words the evening before. It was speaking with its presence. It was trying to explain.
Why was there a black planet hanging in her sky?
Em found a stone. She had been wandering along the shore of the black sea, listening to the sound the waves made—a sound heavier and more hollow than the seashore she recalled on Earth. She kneeled on the shoreline, trying to work up courage to put her hand into the unseen surf and feel if the liquid was water or something heavy and alien, when she found among the thousands of black stones she moved over one that struck her knee.
It was almost perfectly spherical, the size of a large softball. There were indentations on one side and circular grooves on the other. She held it for a long time, wondering whether it was natural or artificial, trying to remember what she recalled about rocks on Earth and how they formed. There might be a million other stones like this one on beaches all over the black world. They might be artifacts. They might be eggs.
She ran her hands over its surface again and heaved it into the sea.
“Do you remember my brother?” Em asked Jena the next day. It was after school, and they were sitting behind the gym, against the wall’s cold bricks. Jena was experimenting with cigarettes. Em couldn’t see the shirt she wore today, as it was covered by a windbreaker.
They hadn’t spoken of her brother directly before. Jena’s eyes widened slightly.
“I don’t remember your brother,” Jena answered.
“We weren’t friends then. And we were still in middle school. When he died.”
Jena was cautious. “It was last year?”
“Do you think it’s his planet?” she asked.
Em shook her head. “No. It’s just a planet. That’s the point.” She thought about telling her about the stone but decided against it.
“Was it cancer?” Jena eyed her cigarette suspiciously.
“No. EB. I can’t remember what it stands for. It’s a genetic thing. They call them butterfly kids, because the layers of their skin don’t adhere correctly. They’re fragile. He always had sores. He was always in pain. And then he developed an aggressive mycosis and died.”
“Mycosis. That means . . .”
“A fungus. A fungal infection. Yes.”
“Why are you telling me?” Jena asked.
“Because it’s a thing.” Em took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Smoke made breath visible, showed you how quickly it dispersed. But Em wasn’t smoking. Her breath remained invisible. “Having skin that doesn’t work. Being killed by a fungus.”
“I’m sorry.” Jena was blinking, and Em realized with a flicker of surprise that there were tears in her eyes. “I mean, what do you do with that? What does that mean?”
“You told me something once,” Em said.
It had been a long time since Em cried. For a while, that had been the only thing that helped. But then, after a while, she couldn’t do it anymore. She would think about crying, but it was as though she was watching herself from the outside, and the feeling would pass. She felt the same way watching Jena now.
“You told me about how they measure wind speeds on a planet’s surface.”
Jena stared at her and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “What?”
“How they can measure winds on planets so far away we can never reach them. You explained it, but I can’t remember.”
“Jesus Christ, Em.” Jena blinked again. “I’m crying about your brother, and I didn’t even know him.”
Jena pushed her cigarette out against the bricks. “It’s about temperature. If you know how close a planet is to its star and how fast it’s rotating, you can calculate temperature difference between its hot side and its cooler side. And you can use that to calculate wind speed. Because wind is caused, you know, by temperature differences,” she finished weakly.
“We can calculate the wind speeds on worlds trillions of miles away,” Em said. She touched Jena’s shoulder. “What do you do with that? What does it mean?”
“Nothing,” Jena said. “I mean, I don’t know. It just is. It’s just a fact that’s there.”
“Right.” She kissed Jena’s forehead. “Like my planet. Like you. That’s the point.”
That night, when Em fell to her black planet, she understood. If she had talked to her parents, they would have made her talk to a counselor, and maybe a counselor would have had a theory about why and how she saw a black planet spinning silently above her bed each night. But that wasn’t important. What was important was that the planet was sending a message: somewhere, in the empty night of space, I am here.
Em stepped out from under dark trees and looked at the mountains outlined against stars. The planet was there, and one day someone might measure its surface temperatures and wind speeds and maybe even—one day—set foot on its surface. But for every planet known, there will be a billion more never touched or seen.
Em had a vision of a world where the inky seas pitched up over the shoreline and beat at the stones.
It was the same with her brother’s death. A fact like that hangs there, in your sky, like an absolute black planet, like a planet without a sun.
She crouched in the shadows of the mountains and felt the cold stones beneath her.
Em knew, for a time, a black planet, absolutely alien and unique under foreign stars. She knew, for a time, her brother.
The black planet spun in silence above her.
Stephen Case gets paid for teaching people about space, which is pretty much the coolest thing ever. He also occasionally gets paid for writing stories about space (and other things) that have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and several other publications. His novel, First Fleet , is being serialized by Retrofit Publishing and is available on Kindle. Stephen holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame and will talk for inordinate amounts of time about nineteenth-century British astronomy. He lives with his wife, four children, and three chickens in an undisclosed suburb of Chicago that has not yet legalized backyard chickens.
That it has long been our joke that our hair lengths are inversely proportional, and cannot exceed the same cumulative mass it possessed on the day we met;
That our faith was bound by this same Law, your exuberant pantheism balanced against my quiet nihilism;
That this Law does not apply to beards;
That you were the long-haired hippie boy, born too late for Woodstock, and I the butch bisexual with a pixie cut marching beside you in the climate change rally;
That we shared the same celebrity crushes—Michelle Obama and Nicolas Cage—and this surprised and delighted us;
That on our first date, we solemnly swore this vow: If we ever found a wardrobe portal, take it; or a TARDIS, hitch a ride; or a UFO, board it without hesitation;
That for such an act we should forgive each other implicitly and completely, because there would be no time to ask, and you might only get one shot;
That brides traditionally grow their hair long, and mourners shave it;
That I shaved mine anyway;
That you wore tiny white field daisies gathered by your niece in your braids, like faraway stars;
That you wore them in your beard too, except one you plucked for the justice of the peace to press in the pages of her Sufi poetry book;
That though we both had liberal arts degrees and too many strong opinions on Sappho, we loved the stars, and the phases of the Moon, and B-grade sci-fi cheese with rayguns and swamp things;
That we were both the type to volunteer when no one else would;
That when, in the strength of my passions, I rushed headlong into a cause, you would be the sword wielded by the arm of my conviction;
That the best swords are alloyed, and folded many times upon themselves;
That I believed in peace above all else, because life was short, and we were mortal, and once life was lost, it ended;
That you believed in peace too, but for opposite reasons;
That no one had yet survived First Contact, and the ships had been recovered empty and adrift, the astronauts completely vaporized;
That I pointed out how this was an absurd conclusion, because all matter, like hair, has to go somewhere;
That fear is an easier thing than hope;
That the fleet drew nearer each day;
That Earth wanted to launch a nuclear arsenal;
That they were running out of astronauts;
That you didn’t ask me before you signed us up for the mission to babysit the shuttle’s payload;
That I didn’t mind;
That they made you cut your hair before we left Earth so your helmet would fit properly, but I had to grow mine out for the same reason;
That you stopped praying that day, and I quietly started;
That we passed the time on the shuttle to the asteroid belt reading aloud from Carl Sagan;
That we agreed the aliens were surely made of star stuff too, in their flat black triangular fleet falling toward Earth like a cloud of loosed arrows;
That they came upon us while we slept, and we jolted awake in our sleeping bags when the shuttle jerked to a stop;
That when we radioed them, they bathed the cockpit in shimmering blue light which tickled my nose like ginger-ale fizz and made me sneeze;
That instead of hitting the launch button, we waited;
That it was just like on Star Trek when we disintegrated, like Scotty beamed us up, except nobody asked permission first;
That we reappeared on their craft, whole and sound and long of hair;
That they had followed the climate change rally too, and taken pity on our plight, and this was a conservation effort;
That I insisted they send us back to explain;
That when I rematerialized on our shuttle, you didn’t return with me;
That you did it on purpose;
That it was, after all, the deal we made;
That I was angry anyway;
That I blasted Nickelback over every radio frequency as your punishment;
That the fleet answered me with mandolin music, distorted as in a dream;
That every sword is wielded by the arm of a conviction;
That every arrow is loosed toward a bullseye;
That all matter—not just hair—is conserved, neither created nor destroyed;
That it is all the stuff of stars;
That the stardust would love me in any form, and I him;
That we will always expand and diminish ourselves for each other’s sake;
That we will take turns being the rock or the slingshot, so we may fling each other into adventure;
That I jettisoned the payload;
That my shuttle shot homeward in a cloud of arrowheads;
That the arrows arced over the Earth, but did not strike;
That from the ground, it looked like long, dark tresses threading through the night sky;
That the bright white stars above flashed like a field of daisies;
And that when they fetched me dripping from the cold grip of the sea, the first thing I did was shave my head, as if for a wedding.
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, an addiction to running, and a couple degrees. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of venues, including Lightspeed, Accessing the Future,Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Crossed Genres, and Daily Science Fiction. She is an editor, a SFWA member, and a secret android. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
Li Jing looks up from the knot of lavender yarn in her hands, knitting needles ceasing their silvery chatter. The old woman smiles, head cocked. There is something subtly cat-like about the motion, a smoothness that belies the lines time has combed into her round face, a light that burns where life has waned.
“I’m sorry?” Li Jing says, voice firmer than one would expect. She fumbles for her hearing aid, finds it in a graveyard of yellowed books and colored fabrics. “What did you say?”
“We want you to live with us, Auntie. So we can take care of you. Make sure you have everything you ever want.”
The guest is a woman, too young by Li Jing’s count, the planes of her cinnamon face virginal, unscarred by wrinkles. She speaks both too loudly and too slowly, Li Jing thinks as she counts the faults in her visitor’s diction. Where consonants should exist, there are clumsy substitutes, ‘d’s where ‘th’s should hold vigil. Li Jing does not correct her, even though the gracelessness appalls. The fugue of youth is trouble enough, she reasons.
“Live with you?” Li Jing says, abrupt, when her thoughts empty enough to allow space for the present. “But this is my home. And — “
“It’s the best solution. And we’ve discussed it for weeks already, talked it over with the whole family.”
The gentleness bites chunks from Li Jing’s patience. It’s a familiar softness, a delicacy of speech reserved only for the invalid or the very young, a lilt that declares its recipient incapable. Arrogance, Li Jing thinks, but again says nothing.
The younger woman, barely a larva of a thing, lowers to her knees, hands piled over Li Jing’s own. “Your husband–we don’t want you to be alone when he — you know.”
Li Jing looks to where her husband lies snoring, already more monument than man, a pleasing arrangement of dark oak and book titles, elegant calligraphy travelling his skin like a road map. Li Jing allows herself a melancholy smile. The ache of loss-to-come is immutable, enormous. But there is pride, too.
In the armoire beside the marital bed sleeps a chronology of her husband’s metamorphosis: scans inventorizing the tiling on the walls of his heart, the stairwells budding in his arteries. For all of the hurt it conjures, Li Jing thinks his metamorphosis beautiful, too.
Before the old woman can structure an answer, the younger unfolds in a waterfall rush of dark, gleaming hair and mournful noises, fist balled against her chest. “Zhang Wei! Where are you? I can’t. I can’t — it’s too much. You talk to her.”
A muscular silhouette obstructs through the doorway, sunlight-limned, statuesque. Shadow gives way to intelligent eyes, a jaw softened by prosperity, and shoulders mausoleum-broad.
“Ah Ma,” Zhang Wei declares as he cuts through the space between them with long strides. He ignores the younger woman. “How are you doing?”
Li Jing raps his arm with her knuckles, a blow too light to offend, but too sharp to ignore. “No need for such wasteful courtesy. I already told you that I’m not leaving your Ah Kong here alone.”
Zhang Wei does not flinch from the assault, only squeezes his features into a mask of repentance. “Sorry, Ah Ma. I know how you feel about this, but you have to trust us. We only have your best interests at heart. We want to move both of you somewhere else, somewhere you can be cared for. I—”
Li Jing interrupts, prim. “We’re fine here. A thaumatotect came last week to check on your grandfather. He says it’s natural for paintings to hurt a little, and the pain should clear once his ribs have adjusted to them. There’s no need for anyone to fuss over us.”
Her grandson and his companion exchange glances like rats in conspiracy. Li Jing’s mouth thickens into a moue. Zhang Wei is the first to slip into a language Li Jing does not recognize, a bubbling of vowels. His woman — girlfriend? Wife? Dalliance? Li Jing recalls only the flippancy of their relationship — responds in kind, her words accompanied by a flicker-dance of small, elegant hands.
It takes heartbeats for Li Jing’s presence to rot into the background, her presence collateral to their fevered conversation. But the old woman is unruffled. Relieved, even. Dialogue never held the same glitter for her as it did for others. She clambers free of her chair and the two do not notice.
Wordless, Li Jing pads to where her husband slumbers. She touches the back of her fingers to his forehead. His skin is cool, rough with a dewing of feldspar. Li Jing’s brows clump. She had expected timber, not stone.
“I don’t think you understand how much good this will do, or what this means for you both.” Zhang Wei’s voice sounds against her musings, deep as the church bell’s eulogy. “We’re not trying to separate you, if that’s what you’re worried about. You’ll be able to visit Ah Kong anytime you wish.”
“Yes, Auntie!” the girl supplies, her voice like glass bells, bright and brittle. “You’ll even be able to pick out his nurse, if you like. And his meals. You won’t have to worry about visiting hours. They’ll have a cot for you. And the rest of the time, you’ll be taken care of by your loving children.”
Li Jing loses her words in a thunder of exasperation. “You don’t understand. He doesn’t want that. I don’t want that. We promised we’ll take care of each other. Always.”
Zhang Wei smiles, cloyingly sympathetic, head dipped in apology. “How will you take care of each other like this? He’s so old, Ah Ma. And so are you. He doesn’t know what he wants. You both — “
The two swap knowing expressions, while Li Jing stares, lips taut with unhappiness.
“What I meant to say is that we’re worried that you might be a little confused,” Zhang Wei continues, spiderweb-soft. “I only want the best for you, Ah Ma.”
Li Jing thins her lips. “What’s best for me is staying with your grandfather.”
“I — All right. I understand. But, hear me out –“
She recognizes argument in the bend of their spines, the tilt of their mouths. Dissatisfaction kindles in her breast but Li Jing does not give voice to it. She knows from experience they won’t relent until she is subdued. So Li Jing nods meekly instead, dispenses ‘maybes’ with shrugs, hoping against reason that indecision will outlast her grandchildren’s persistence. She sighs as they close in on her, allowing the tide of their words to wash over her like foam on a distant shore, carrying away talk of relocation, complex treatments, and futures she stores no interest in.
Li Jing is unique. Even from infancy, it was clear her skin would never be mantled with marble, and that her eyes would never be replaced by glass, her bones wood. At fifteen, no signage inked itself on her flesh, as it did others’, no portent of architectural occupation.
It complicated her relationships, of course. By the time Li Jing was wise enough to court partnership, city-sickness had become pandemic, so widespread that humanity was forced to leaven it into normalcy. One by one, proponents mushroomed from the carcass of fear, oozing grand ideas: why was this disease so terrible? Did it not provide a concrete immortality?
Consequently, few became willing to stomach a lover whose lifespan could be measured in decades. Death was never easy, but it was infinitely harder when you knew you would never walk the halls of your beloved, would never laze on their moon-drenched balconies.
Li Jing consumed their prejudices without complaint and used the dearth of companionship to build herself other loves: literature, mathematics, the reading of stars, the sleek alley cats that haunted the shadows behind her home. Months became years. In that time, loneliness grew into so much of a cherished companion that Li Jing almost chose the quiet over her husband-to-be.
She was forty when she met round-faced Zhang Yong, who wore the names of her favorite books on his sandstone-pale arms. Forty, and almost too wise to risk her heart. But Zhang Yong had gentle hands, a gentle smile and when he laughed, his voice was like a rustle of pages. Li Jing did not love him immediately. Instead, she learned to do so in increments, brick by brick, until she built her heart a new home.
They married four years after their first encounter, with the discretion that Li Jing that was so enamored of. And for a small eternity, they were happy.
“Li Jing?” Her husband’s voice is roughened by sleep and the creak of new hinges. “What time is it?”
“Late.” She glances up from her book and dog-ears the page, expression papered with concern. “You missed dinner.”
“I’m sorry.” His contrition makes her ache, its child-like earnestness evoking a pang for when they spoke without needing to keep one eye on caution. “It’s just –“
“I know,” says Li Jing, rising to secure an arm around his side, a hand around his wrist. Together, they lift him, a feat that scrapes their breath into tatters. In recent months, Zhang Yong has grown ponderous, his skeleton weighed with concrete.
But they persevere. Slowly, they migrate to Zhang Yong’s new dining space — a flip-table bolted to the wall beside an overstuffed red chair — and deposit him there. Before she moves to retrieve his meal, Li Jing presses her mouth against her husband’s cheek, impulse-quick, drinking in the skin’s faint warmth. She is possessive of his heat these days, knowing it’ll be gone soon, payment for cold glass and teak, passionless metals.
“So, Zhang Wei came over with his lady friend today –” Li Jing keeps the cadence of her voice breezy, syllables dancing between troubles, too light to be caught between teeth.
“Wai Sing’s second son.” Li Jing says, patient. Personal experience has made her accustomed to the fashion with which age makes sieves out of a person’s mind, memory hissing from the gaps like stardust through the slats of dawn. “The one who peed in his pants until he was eight. He grew up very tall.”
She ladles stew into a bowl, ornaments it with sprig of parsley before picking out a quartet of soft, white buns. Feeling wicked, Li Jing appends chocolate pudding to the arrangement. Why not? she thinks savagely. He only has such a short time left.
“He was the one with stained glass eyes?”
Li Jing shakes her head. “No. That was his brother, Zhang Long.”
“Zhang Long.” Her husband repeats, cautious. “Do I — do we have — ?”
“I can check.” Gently, she deposits his dinner on the table, before molding fingers to the gaunt architecture of his face, skin to still-human skin. Li Jing breathes deep.
This is their secret. As though to compensate for the immeasurable emptiness that is to come, the thousand-strong ways her heart will break on routines denied a partner, serendipity provisioned Li Jing with a bizarre gift.
In the beginning, the gift manifested as mere instinct, an aptitude for predicting alterations in her husband’s biology. Over the months, it coalesced into a tool, an ability to edit the topography of his disease.
Though they had initially hoped otherwise, hers was an imperfect talent. Li Jing could not bleach the sickness from him, could only mold its trajectory. With the pragmatism of the old, the two decided they would not despair but would turn disaster into providence. Brick by brick, they would build Zhang Yong, until he could provide for Li Jing in death as he did in life.
“This will sting,” Li Jing warns, the words hatched from habit rather than intent.
Magic stirs in her lungs, motes of flame. She holds them till they become needle points, surgical-sharp, before exhaling. In her mind’s eye, Li Jing sees them perforate Zhang Yong’s skin, tunneling into vein and sinew.
Zhang Yong hisses.
“It’s there in your rib,” Li Jing confirms, walking her fingers from his chin to throat, throat to chest. Her sorcery follows like a puppy. Li Jing flattens a palm over his heart. “Are you sure you want chandeliers? It seems a bit tawdry for a book store.”
He nods, features contorted into a rictus. “It will bring you rich customers.”
“The rich don’t read.”
Zhang Yong mimed a scowl. “They do, if they know what’s good for them. The wise build their businesses on the spine of books.”
Li Jing’s mouth quirks and she cups the back of his neck with her other hand. Lips smooth against the creased flesh of his forehead. In the beginning, the two had considered divulging Li Jing’s new endowment to their children, but discarded the idea. She was too old, and it was too little to warrant the torrent of questions to follow. And who knew where gossip would drag the revelation, which scientist might come demanding access the contents of Li Jing’s flesh? “A poet to the end, aren’t we?”
“Can’t risk losing you to a young man yet.”
Yet. The word catches Li Jing off-guard, a noose that bites deep. Preparation is not panacea, only armor to help weather sorrow. Regardless of Li Jing’s efforts, reminders of her husband’s mortality still cut like razors, dividing reason from self, leaving only heart-flesh that is raw and red.
She averts her face but she is not quick enough. The humor in Zhang Yong’s gaze, innocent in its frankness, dies at the anguish that flits through hers.
“I’m so sorry, darling. I’m –“
“It’s okay.” Li Jing cannot endure his grief, not when she already has so much of her own to balance. “Eat your dinner. I will clean up.”
Their eyes do not meet for fear of what might have pooled them, salt in old wounds. Li Jing bows her head and stalks peace through a forest of unwashed dishes, through the fleeting rhythms of domesticity.
“This is…slightly unexpected,” Li Jing tells the procession at her door, caution beating hummingbird wings in her chest.
They are all here, she thinks. The entire clan. Her eyes find relatives memory had previously transformed into vague blots of words and actions, grandnieces and grandchildren grown sapling-sleek. Li Jing’s gaze maps the bleakness of their attire, stark monochrome complemented by fisted hands and dour expressions. Wariness thickens into a weight.
“Everyone’s here to see Ah Kong.” Zhang Wei stands in the vanguard, comforting in his breadth. “And you, of course.”
“He’s not dead.” The statement is razored. A warning. Li Jing pushes on the door, only to locate Zhang Wei’s foot in the split. “You don’t have to come en masse just yet. One at a time. And today is not a good day. He’s tired and so am I.”
“Ah Ma. Please.”
Li Jing glances over the horizon of her shoulder, finds Zhang Yong’s silhouette in the antechamber to their bedroom. She sighs. Her husband had always been the disciplinarian, she the tender heart of their family. Zhang Wei’s desperation peels back her shell, leaves only grudging assent.
“Only if you promise to keep the children quiet.”
The stream of guests is endless, overwhelming, coiling through the house like snakes. Li Jing loses herself in the cadence of their arrivals, oscillating from kitchen to seating areas, moving cups of tea and day-old pastries. Eventually, she allows her children and her grandchildren to assist her. Under her supervision, they concoct cookies, mugs of hot chocolate, delicate things to nibble upon between anecdotes.
The hours pass.
Suspicion melts into an elegiac contentment, even as Li Jing watches Zhang Yong come alive under the constant attention. It has been months since his eyes glittered so brightly. Only once, at some indistinct point in the afternoon, does she feel a whine of irrational terror, a worry that they might be thieving from a diminishing supply. That when they leave, they leave her with only a husk of a husband, hollowed of humanity.
But her panic is fleeting, replaced by guilt. That’s not how people work, Li Jing tells herself, pushing aside the warning bells that clang and dance in the back of her head.
The hours continue their patient march.
“Where do you keep Ah Kong’s things?”
Li Jing jolts her head up.
Most of the guests have departed, leaving Zhang Wei and his woman, an older couple that Li Jing does not recognize and their brood of three, a niece she barely remembers. Faces without names, perambulating through a home suddenly two sizes too small.
“Why?” It is the only word that she can manage.
“They’re expecting him at the home.”
“The home?” Li Jing repeats, throat parched. “What home?”
“There’s a nursing home at the corner of the city,” Zhang Wei replies, his eyes roving the room, unwilling to meet Li Jing’s. “It’s a good place. Great, in fact. Highest-rated in the whole city. They even have a dedicated zoning area for patients. Beautiful, beautiful place. Well-attended. Grandpa will look splendid there.”
Li Jing’s voice is child-soft, child-meek. “But we decided he would stay here. Besides, our neighborhood needs a book store.”
“What if he becomes a library instead? You hardly have the space for that.”
He won’t, Li Jing thinks. I’ve seen the blueprints tattooed on his stomach. I’ve seen the cache of books in his liver, the oaken shelving of his ribs, the old-fashioned cash register nursed in his left lung.
“That’s not the point,” Li Jing tells her grandchild, hands convulsing.
“No,” Zhang Wei agrees, stepping forward to arrest her shoulders with broad palms. “The point is we’re trying to do what is best for you. I promise you. It will be fine. You need to believe me. Come, Ah Ma. We’ve even organized a rotation system. You’ll have rooms with all of us and live with each family a week at a time.”
“No,” Li Jing says, trying to wrestle away. But Zhang Wei’s grip is as inexorable as death’s advances. “No. I’m not going with you.”
“It’d be fine.” Zhang Wei sighs, voice now feathered with a twinge of frustration. “Besides. Look. Ah Kong agreed.”
He unfurls a cream-colored parchment, its tail branded with Zhang Yong’s jagged signature.
“You tricked him.”
“Be reasonable, Ah Ma. Why would I do that?”
“He’s old. You — I didn’t see him reading that. He didn’t talk to me about it and we always, always discuss contracts together. What did you do? What did you do?” Li Jing’s voice crests into a shout, red-stained with fury. She squeezes her eyes shut. Her veins feel stretched like power cords, crackling.
“I told him what he needed to know. Anyway, it’s all decided. Ah Ma, please. Don’t make this difficult.”
Li Jing closes a fist, feels her fingers constrict around her dread, around the panic that clogs her lungs and her thoughts and her throat. Feels her grip choke earth and stone, walls and wood.
And something breaks.
You are not taking away my husband! Li Jing startles at the scream, for it is almost hers. It emanates from every dimension, avalanche-loud, incendiary. The old woman opens her eyes and marvels as the room curls around her like a loyal serpent, pillars and rafters curving liked the bowed backs of religious supplicants.
“Get out.” She snarls between sobs. “Get out and leave us. Get out and take away all of your presumptions, your rotations, your, your — get out.”
When her family hesitates, Li Jing answers with a ripple of the floor, spears of cherrywood coursing forward like hounds on the hunt. It takes a heartbeat for epiphany to strike, but the other occupants of her bloodline soon flee in a stampede of footsteps and wails.
The house throbs in Li Jing’s blood. She can feel her husband’s heartbeat slackening, cooling to rock, to the ticking of a grandfather clock. In all the clamor, she had lost track of her husband’s condition.
“I’m here.” Li Jing stumbles to Zhang Yong’s side, sinks to her knees. Her embrace is ferocious. “I’m here, I’m here. I’m here.”
Too soon, too soon, too soon. The thought presses salt into the membrane of her eyes. She thought they had more time together, more weeks. This is too soon.
What she says instead is:
She will tell him that a thousand times if she has to. Until her words become a wall between him and the dark. “And it will be all right. And when I die, I’ll have them put my bones in your garden. We’ll be together always.”
Zhang Yong says nothing, only tenses his hold on her hand.
“I’m here. Don’t worry,” Li Jing repeats softly, as though the statement was an invocation against grief.
She is still whispering to him when the light bleeds from his eyes, when his skin grays to stone, when her heart disintegrates to ash.
A day passes.
Li Jing’s family return. Instead of her cottage, they discover a gray cube twenty feet high, smooth and featureless as an egg. There are no windows, no exits. They wait for a time, believing Li Jing will eventually emerge. Even the unnatural must eat.
But she does not.
A week flits by.
By the end of the twenty-first sunset, her family surrenders its pursuit. Li Jing and her husband are pronounced deceased, their epitaphs a flurry of tsking noises.
By the end of the year, Li Jing and her husband are consigned to myth and drunken discussion, legends without substance, ghosts to be studied without the frame of truth.
If you promise not to be disruptive, you may visit the store. — Li Jing
Li Jing signs the last letter and sighs. Her fingers are brocaded with ink, her smile with exhaustion. A part of her aches for the liberty of isolation. It would be simpler than explaining everything that had transpired. So much easier than instructing herself not to loathe Zhang Wei for his intent, to forgive his motivation if not his actions.
But that is not what Zhang Yong would have desired.
Li Jing sips tea from a cup made from her husband’s bones, its golden heat suffusing the ivory with something almost like life. Her eyes wander the ribs of her new domicile. The store is beautiful, lush with books and paintings like photographs, conjured flawless from history. When she closes her eyes, Li Jing can see her family exploring the space, investigating cabinet and bookshelf, stove and garden. Briefly, she wonders how Zhang Wei will take to the statuette of him, marble-skinned and pissing fresh water into a horse-shoe shaped pond.
Tomorrow, she decides, she will send out the letters and court her family’s questions.
Tonight, it is tea and reading and learning the patterns of this unfamiliar silence, which sit as awkwardly as new lovers. Nothing will ever replace the way Zhang Yong’s presence curled around hers, jigsaw-snug. There will never be a salve for the gasping loneliness she experiences each morning when she awakens and, in that purgatory between sleep and awareness, forgets why his side of the bed is unfilled.
But she will survive, will rebuild her existence, brick by brick, around the absence. Li Jing has a lifetime of memories in her foundations. It will never be perfect again, but it will be, someday, enough.
Li Jing splays her book, begins to read. And in the quiet, the rustle of pages sounds like the chuckle of love departed but never forgotten.
Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for small Singaporean game micropublisher Ysbryd, and the writer for indie puzzle game Perlinoid. She’s also writing an Interactive Fiction novel for Choice of Games, freelancing for a variety of tech outlets, and blankly trying to figure out where to cram in more short story writing. Cassandra can be found at http://www.twitter.com/casskhaw where she tweets like a fiend.
Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows.
Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.
Tell me that story, about how once we all had everything we wanted and never lost anything, about how once we slept and dreamed and sometimes we even slept without dreaming, total sleep that wrapped around our minds like a blanket and lulled and coaxed and woke just as softly, turning and sliding an arm around the waist of whoever happened to be beside you.
Tell me the story about lazy Sundays, about dinner at eight, about dressing like dolls and music that wound around us and kept out the world.
Tell me the story about how once there was cold, and snow, and all sound muffled and the world still, and a single one of those laughing birds sang tentative songs that suggested a long journey, a warmer climate, a finite amount of deprivation that only made the blooming of the world sweeter and more welcome.
Tell me about the times before the fires.
When you have told me that story, tell me the story about the time when we cared about false lives, little story lives within other stories, when we had time for such diversions, when we had the heart to care. Tell me about the shifting of flat light and faces and their trials and tribulations, how we suffered vicariously through them because their suffering made the beginnings of our own more bearable. Tell me about what it was like to grow up as an entire planet, to come to understand in our walled garden what everyone else already knew: that we were our own little diverting stories and that not all stories have happy endings. You and I both know they don’t, but tell me about a time when we were still children, and ignorant, and we ran and played and didn’t think about dying.
Sit down beside me in the dust and tell me stories of empire. Tell me stories of glory in war before the war came home. Tell me stories of wars in plays of light, rainbow light without the rain, and tell me all about how exciting it was and how we couldn’t wait to see what happened next, all make-believe at being brave, until something else came along and stole our attention away. Tell me the story about how we really didn’t think too much about it until those awkward family holidays, until looking without looking and then looking away, at scars and half a limb and perfect eyes that still stared and hated us for looking back. Tell me about how no one said anything. Tell me about that guilty silence, and about how we all felt like we were being jerked out of a dream and it was all our fault for having it in the first place.
Tell me stories about the first city falling, the running and the screams, blood-foam and trampling and how we watched it from so far away, so we still felt safe, mostly, but tell me then after that about how the helicopter hit the side of the building and bloomed fire, and then the tanks, and tell me about roadblocks and gunshots and how we didn’t know what had been done so we didn’t know how to keep it from happening to us.
On second thought, no, don’t tell me. I don’t like this story.
But I don’t remember so I have to ask; won’t you hold my hand and tell me about the highway and the curve of the mountain’s back and the crystals of ice in the sky, a frozen rainbow like light that didn’t fall but flew. Tell me about how our hands got so cold they were red and hurting, how we put them wet on each other’s necks and screamed at the contrast.
Tell me about the times before all the houses washed away and you shot a man for a bottle of water, in the middle of a flood you did that, and I laughed because it was so funny how it made no sense but it made all the sense it needed to.
And then, once you’ve told me all of that, you can tell me about the hundreds of people on the roads, hundreds of thousands with bags and packs, with eyes like pits with little lanterns at their bottoms, and you can tell me about useless cell phones dropped and crunching underfoot like autumn leaves. You can tell me about when we had autumn leaves. You can tell me about fields of corn, green and gold, rough leaves that could scratch when they touched you in just the right way. Before all those fields were burning.
You can tell me stories about the dreams I used to have, sleeping curled against you in crude parodies of how we used to do, satire that never set anyone free but which still cut like knives. You can tell me about my dreams of wanting and comfort and plenty, of return, which you always said were pointless, when you told me to stop having them and I told you they were all I had, because then I felt like I didn’t even have you anymore. You can tell me about the flat of your hand and my face and the moment when the two came together. You can tell me about the audacity of eyes devoid of the proper tears. You can tell me about the opening of a frozen space in time, a broken instant that marked the end of everything that came before and everything that came after. You can tell me stories about the real end of a real world.
But you can also tell me stories about everything before that spike of temporal ice. Please tell me stories about back when I had no idea what it looked like when a pregnant woman died. Tell me about when I didn’t know what it looked like when a dog ate a child half-submerged in mud.
Tell me about the times before the camps, before the camps also burned, when we had beds, when we had sheets and their softness, and breezes that smelled like living and air. Tell me about the times before we got our food and our water from men and women in helmets, guns like pointing fingers and so angry, and at what? Can you tell me what they were so angry about? Tell me about when there was a time where no one told us what to do.
Tell me about the times before the stars were so bright.
Tell me about the times before the sun cracked and blackened skin, raised blisters and burst them. Tell me about a kind sun, a sun with which we could have love affairs. A sun we would travel thousands of miles to lie in, to stretch out in like cats, letting it touch every inch of us.
Tell me stories about blue.
Tell me stories about maps, about the discovery of terrain, about the luxury of taking our time. Tell me stories about adventures, about the joy of fine little shivers of imagined danger, about heights and sharp drop-offs that enticed us but which we never had to go near.
After that, tell me a story about the survival of how selfish we were. About how first it made us happy and then later it kept us alive.
But tell me about the first one.
Omit the latter, if you can.
Tell me the story about how that one time you said something funny, and it didn’t matter what it was because it was funny, and I laughed, and you laughed, and no one cared that we were laughing and no one yelled to shut up or hit to make it so, and you put a hand on my belly and said soon, very soon now, and I believed in soon as a concept. Tell me a story about when soon wasn’t something to fear.
Tell me a story about when each second wasn’t a needle’s stab.
Tell me about when there were unbroken windows, about clear reflections, and faces you wanted to see, could admire, could improve. Tell me about polish and painted lips, and watching with half a smile, turning and moving for the sheer pleasure of seeing it so.
Lean against me and touch each of my fingers, one by one—the ones I have left, and the places where the lost ones aren’t anymore—and tell me about before all the stealing, before the smashed storefronts, before we stopped standing in line for needless things.
Tell me a story about all the pretty lies.
Tell me a fairy story, a story with heroes. Tell me a story where virtue equals salvation. Tell me a story about a world where that matters. Tell me a story about being kind, not being weak and getting fucked over every time.
Tell me a story about a time that never happened, a thing we never did, like sharing what we had with the hungry-eyed people, the lantern-eyed people, looking at us like they’d kill us and take it all but then there was the gun so they never did. Tell me a story where we save people and they love us and we smile, yes, we did that and we were good. Tell me a story about how we might be good.
Tell me a story about back when we could be good. When we could pretend. Tell me a story about when never meant something more than until.
Tell me a story about when meat meant just animals.
Tell me a story about when you were whole.
Tell me a story about when there were still things I wouldn’t do.
Please tell me a story about a time when this wasn’t happening, when I wasn’t crouching here by this fire and looking at you, touching all the places where you used to be, my belly empty and my head empty and all my memories running out of me like tears. Give them back to me, every one. I’m begging you, open your mouth and open your eyes and tell me about a time before the knife, before no choices, before being alone and starving and terrified and so numb that terror no longer matters, about no more lights but the stars, tell me about those pretty falling rainbows so I can look at them and not at you while I do what I have to do.
A story about the living taste of you, and about my mouth and your mouth and being consumed, and how greedy we were with each other. A taste that is not this taste and a greed that is not this awful, clawing thing twisting my gut into a devouring maw. An unkind thing. Less than you deserve and so much more than I do. Tell me about when I lived with you and not on you, not on your flesh and on your blood, and both so cold.
Tell me a story.
I need you to tell me a story so I can remember that this is not all there is, parting skin and no fat left and stringy muscle and thin blood, like water, in which I see no light at all. I need you to tell me a story so I don’t die here, die and just keep moving anyway, slow and even all the way to the unhappy end.
I need you to tell me a story that isn’t thicker blood in the dirt and loss that reaches into the heart and claws it out of your body. I need you to tell me a story about life and first breaths and cries that mean a future.
Tell me a story that isn’t this story. I need you to tell it to me like stories still matter. Like they’re more than whispers that die when the fire starts roaring.
I need you to tell me a story so I can put it in me and carry it with me, my own little lantern in the pit of myself, wavering and flickering but still lit, rainbows hiding inside it, on into the darkness without you. Tell me. Tell me all of it, to my teeth and tongue and throat.
Tell it to my belly, my heart. Tell me and I swear I’ll believe you.
Oh my best beloved, tell me the story and I’ll believe in the light again.
Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, among other places. They are also responsible for the novelsLine and Orbit (cowritten with Lisa Soem) and the Casting the Bones trilogy. They unfortunately live just outside Washington DC in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.
The first time you saw her, she was getting change from the machine in the lavandería; copper and nickel clacked against her metal palms, a rain of clicks pricking your eardrums. She was just as grotesque as your sister said: silvery fingers stiff as stone, jointless and smooth, unable to pluck the money from the open mouth of the change-maker. She struggled to scoop the coins into the stiff basket of her hands but you wouldn’t help her. You were too busy praying to Saint Lucy to take away your voice for good this time.
After your father’s death, you couldn’t speak; your throat was dry and not even startled bird sounds flew from it. When you were finally able to nod for yes and shake for no, your mother sent you back to school because what else could she do with you?
It was autumn and the neighbor’s cat was twining around your legs and you bent and ran your short brown fingers down its back and up its tail and what could you do but sigh at the feeling of soft silky fur? You hadn’t meant to. Until that moment, you hadn’t even known that you could make that airy rumble in your throat. The cat stumbled then, looked at you and then behind you with eyes so dilated there was almost no green left in them and then limped away under the front bush. It was strange but then, people had been running from you since your father died, the tiny mute girl who witnessed it all.
When you came back from school that afternoon, your neighbor was looking and looking but never found her cat. You cried into the orange carpet beneath your bed because you loved cats and had hoped you were not such a bad girl, that the first time, the time with your father, was just an accident. You started to breathe long and even and slept with your hands around your neck so no sounds would come out while you were dreaming.
You were doing so well, until the day the boy fell over. You hadn’t known your tongue started to work again, could push the airy hum that you kept pressed down in your chest into stubborn syllables until the boy decided to stab you in the cheek with the pencil. You were all the way at the back of the room and the boy, who was only as cruel as children can be, turned to you and jabbed the yellow stick into the softest part of your face. The jagged point of the lead ripped your skin and made it burn. His eyes dared you to tell and so help you, your voice swept from the dark valley of your lungs, not loud but fast and you couldn’t have stopped it. What you whispered was unintelligible but terrible enough and you’ll never forget the tremble of his eyes and the convulsing of his lips or the blood that pooled after his head hit the floor.
You wrote his mother that you were sorry but she never wrote you back and your ma didn’t send you to school after that. Your ma asked your abuela, who was still alive back then, what to do with you and Abuela said you must pray to the Virgin but that hasn’t gotten you anywhere. So you pray to Saint Lucy and when you’re supposed to be kneeling on the hard wooden floor of the confessional or doing penance by cleaning houses while everyone is doing laundry or shopping or work and making very sure you do not open your mouth, you walk around the town pretending you are the only one alive. Because you could be.
You see her the second time outside of the church. Your ma and your tías have told your sister the woman was exiled here. They are all afraid of her, disgusted by her. How could she let a man do that to her? She’s too calm and unashamed, walking with her head high in crowds, nodding to the matriarchs of the town. She doesn’t offer apologies when she catches children, or even adults, staring at her hands, her feet. You never see her slinking out from behind the dark walnut of the confessional, or pressing her forehead to the polished shoulders of the pew in front of her, or taking the Communion. You wonder if she’s even Catholic.
You are, just like everyone else you know. Saint Lucy is your favorite saint because you can talk to her in your full voice and she doesn’t mind. She scared people, too. She plucked out her own eyes to stop a pagan king from adding her to his harem. When he found out she’d disfigured herself, he had her beheaded. Now she walks around where the spirit world and the people world rub against one another like cats on a new couch, her eyes held before her on a bright blue plate, eye-sockets dark caverns in her face. Even though your ma tells you to pray to Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, you pray to Saint Lucy, the protector of those who have trouble with their eyes and throats. You pray she’ll take your voice away for good, or at least steal your ma’s eyes so she won’t have to look at you.
Your sister says she knows for a fact that the woman with the silver hands is in the witness protection program, saw the feds parked outside her door.
—How d’you know they’re feds? Isn’t she from China or somewhere? You scribble on a memo pad in big block letters and hold it up to your sister from across the room.
Your sister loves you, but will only let you sit with at least a room between you, in case you get excited or angry, in case you can’t help it, she explained. It’s not that she doesn’t love you, Abuela told you once. She just fears Death.
Your sister reads the pad and just gives you a look. She watches a lot of television, all of the murder shows and detective shows and cop shows and if anyone knows feds, it is her.
—Well, how do you know they were there for her? The memo pad is full so you write this on the thick back cover.
—Please, she says. Who else would they be here for?
It’s true. Why would the feds come here?
You wonder. Later, you will hate yourself for it but you wonder what the woman did wrong. What she did to deserve it—being cut and sent away. Did she do something as horrible as you did?
Probably worse, you think. At least they let you stay.
The third time you see the woman, she’s in the produce aisle of the grocery. It is a Friday, a day when most women are at the lavandería, catching up on gossip and telenovelas while their whites and darks spin in lazy circles. Your ma and tías are probably there, too. No one shops on Fridays. You, however, have decided it’s the perfect day to visit Lorenzo, your only friend, who is deaf and who you therefore cannot hurt, in the vault of the funeraría, where they keep the bodies before they go underground. You will get kiwis for him because he has a weakness for strange fruit. Then you will sneak off and visit your abuela.
The woman is standing in front of the melons. They are round, ripe, huge as your tías’ breasts, and their warm smell tells you that they are already mush inside, too soft, like the head of a new baby. But the woman doesn’t seem to catch their scent. Instead she places the melons in her basket, cocks her head and moves to the nectarines, the plums, the strawberries. She must feel them to know if they are good to buy. You see her press the tip of her hard finger to their tiny fleshy bodies, one by one.
You wonder: How can she feel ripeness? Anticipate the taste on her tongue?
You feel sorry for her. You wonder: What would it be like to never know if the fruit at your lips will run juicy down your chin, or crunch dry between your teeth?
You pluck a perfectly red strawberry from its sage-green carton and, with gentle pressure, you run your thumb down its seed-speckled fullness. It is perfect. Then, without flinching, but also without touching, you place it in the palm of her silver hand.
The woman looks at you and nods. She pays for the fruit, yours and hers, and follows you out of the store.
Later, at the café, she tells you to call her Marsha. You wonder what her real name is.
She says that her hands and feet were removed. Not cut or lopped or hacked off. For a moment it makes you think that maybe, just maybe they were surgically separated from her body at birth, due to some kind of defect. This thought, your thought, makes you feel momentarily comforted.
Before you can begin to imagine how a baby can crawl with no hands or feet, she says:
—You are the first person to acknowledge me. Even the cashiers at the bodega look away from me, keep silent, as if their lips where as hard as my hands.
You are sitting at a dirty plastic table, drinking strong coffee, even though your mother has warned you that this will stunt your growth. You stir a pure white waterfall of sugar and a lake of cream into your cup. Marsha does not touch her coffee. And even though she is strange and broken, you somehow know that it would be impossible for you, as evil as your ma says you are (and she is probably right), to hurt her. Perhaps it is the way she looks at you, as if she has already forgiven you for whatever you might do, whatever you have done.
You decide to open your mouth because for once, someone is talking to you and is not afraid and this makes you brave. You breathe in, fill the shadowy caves of your lungs and then, slowly, let them collapse with your words.
—You’ll get used to it, you whisper. They do not like anyone to be more interesting than them. My abuela used to call them the quedadas malas. They don’t like me either. I call Death.
You don’t tell her why. You don’t know why, not yet. You are sure that if she sticks around town long enough, she will figure this out on her own. Her eyes are black and round as the cup of coffee between her hands. She does not reply, does not try to comfort you. She simply watches; a very still animal waiting for something to happen, a change in wind, a shift in the shadows.
—So, what are you doing here?
Impatient, your voice splashes into the air, louder than you meant it to, and she is as still as the statue of Saint Lucy you pray to every night, and for a brief but flaming second you are afraid, truly afraid, that you’ve killed her. That her eyes will run and her mouth will weep with saliva and you will be left, again, with the body.
Her eyes are so still, pools of oil and her skin the solid yellow-brown sand of the earth and then she says:
—I’ve come for you.
She doesn’t flinch when she says this. Something in her tone calls to you, an understanding, a kinship, something in her deep eyes and careful words makes you feel you could fall into her arms, the blanket of her compassion warming you, that you could stay there forever and not be afraid. You hold your breath until the lights in the corners of the café go flashing and blue and then you let it out. You tell her everything.
You are not supposed to confess your sins to anyone except the priest (the priest who will not hear you, who lets you sit in the brown dark of the confessional alone because even he fears for his life), but you do. You lay your woe at the silver feet of this woman you just met, this woman you are supposed to ignore, but who has somehow, miraculously come for you. You tell her about your father’s death, when you were just a baby in his arms. How he sang to you: mi cielo mi cielo mi cielo and how you, after months of trying, could finally form the sounds, say the words back to him. You loved your papa, your heaven. You did not understand when his pupils shrank and his mouth gaped and all the muscles in his face went slack and he fell on the slick lino of the kitchen floor and when you saw the blood you called and called until you lost your voice and someone you did not know came to take him away. You tell her about your abuela, who, years later believed you when you drew out for her what you’d done, and who told you it was no evil, but a gift, a gift she made you promise to use when she was old and suffering too much, and you were the only one who could do it and so you did, just like she asked, and now, now everyone hated you, especially your mother who missed your father, and her mother, and would never ever forgive you for calling Death to take them.
You’ve led Marsha to the cemetery. The day to clean the graves is months away and most stones lie in neglect, covered with the dust of rotten flowers. Marsha sits at the foot of your abuela’s stone and watches as you polish the statues of Guadalupe and kiss the head of your own Saint Lucy and place her with her plate of eyes in the middle of the marble, flanked by petunias and marigolds and three ripe strawberries. You’ve already told Marsha everything when she says:
—When I was a girl in Xi’an, I played the violin. I could make the bow and the wood sing and all who heard it swore it was more beautiful than the cries coming from the very heart of the goddess Kwan Yin. Do you know her?
You shake your head, snake your hand to the top of the gravestone and sneak a small strawberry. Since you sat on the warm earth the scent of ripeness has been stealing into your nostrils and you cannot help yourself. Your abuela would not mind.
—She is the goddess who hears all the suffering of the world and is said to give comfort. She does not flinch from death, nor from life, no matter how full of sorrow. Marsha continued. —In any case, I was promised to a very wealthy, very cruel man. My father said that the man would ensure that I had the finest education, lessons from the masters of string and entrances to the greatest orchestras in the world. I only had to obey him. It was not hard to say yes—I was very young, what did I know of marriage?
—So you were married?
Marsha looks not much older than your sister. You want to ask her if she misses her father but instead you suck the fruit into your mouth. You are not used to interrupting, to the deep ocean of your voice and the way it sounds when it is full, when it does not kill.
Marsha places her shining hands on her knees, palm up and squints at the sky:
—Yes. Yes, we were married. We were not happy. We loved different things. I loved my music and he loved having a wife, a possession.
—But how was he cruel? Did he lock you in a tower?
You think of all the fairy tales you were ever told, the stories you and Lorenzo tell each other with your hands in the dark recesses of the funeraría vaults where only the dead can hear.
Marsha’s voice is strong and clear and all the stones in the cemetery shake like they are going to crack and her eyes fix on you: black and shiny and terrifying and ready to swallow you if you say another word.
—What matters is that I had a gift and he stole it away. How can I describe how creating music felt? It was more than the hum along the strings, the small brown body of the violin trembling beneath my chin; it was as if every sorrow there ever was had shaken loose from the world. I had just started my instruction at the conservatory when I became pregnant. My husband would not allow me to be a mother and a violinist. My place was by his side. He was a lonely man and the prospect of a child made him believe that he could keep me, keep us forever, objects in his collection. But how could I give up the one thing that made me who I was? So I refused.
Her words are nails piercing coffin-wood. The sparrows in the trees above stop their chittering and sit perfectly still, tiny brown stones waiting to fall from the leafless trees.
You look at her hands then, thinking that you understand.
—No, little girl. It was not simply what was taken from me that made me what I am. It was what I found after.
She raises her palms and all of the light in the world streams into them. The grass, the trees, the gravestones, everything, falls colorless, simple shades of glass and shadow. Nothing moves. Not even the air. Not even your chests.
And in this place of still smoke and mirror you start to know your gift. You close your eyes and know: you are the woman in the boat who cradles the king’s head, you are the saint who sits beside the goddess of mercy, you are Death and though you are feared, you need not fear yourself.
You open your eyes and again, are in the day, the cemetery. You sit beside Marsha, the woman, the outcast, the only person you can speak to in your full voice. You will follow her, wherever it is that she takes you.
She lifts a perfectly round watermelon from her bag and with heavy, silvery hands, knocks on the jungle-green skin of the fruit. You feel the dull thump deep in your chest and before she cracks the rind you know the pink taste of sweetness, can feel it flood your mouth, your throat, your heart.
Things used to be pure inside me. Separated. When I was a boy, I was wholly a boy. When I was a horse, I was wholly a horse.
Things used to be simple inside me. I was all one thing or I was all another. And the two only got close when the change was happening.
But things aren’t so simple anymore. The lines inside me feel blurry, more and more every day. And as I sit here across from that pretty Beiler girl, all I can think about is how she smells like dew-damp clover. She’s got eyes as bright as bluebells, a smile like sunshine and I know that should make me feel something, but all I can think of is that smell.
It makes me hungry. I press my hands over my stomach to keep the rumbling quiet. My shoulders twitch and I imagine rolling over, scrubbing my sunburned back against thick sweet grass and the dry Michigan soil beneath.
A few dozen boys and girls pack the Stoltzfus’ barn, all chattering like blue jays. All laughing as the Sunday singing comes to an end. The smell of musty alfalfa hay wafts down from the loft. Two draft mares in the far stalls snort softly and munch on sticky-sweet molasses grain.
The Beiler girl—Katie?—is speaking. My face feels hot as I lean forward, head cocked sideways. “What’s that now?”
She smiles, her face going probably the same shade as mine as the kids around us start rising. “I said, you’re Abram Fisher’s son, jah?”
“Jah,” I say, and stand with the crowd of dark-clad teenagers. I’m a full head taller than most everyone here. Standing makes it more noticeable. I feel a dozen eyes on me and fight the urge to bolt. “Jah,” I say again. “I’m Joash.”
She sticks a hand out, still smiling. “I’m Katie.”
I take her hand in mine, feeling the calluses on her palms scrape the calluses on mine. She doesn’t let go right away, so I do it for her, shoving my hand awkwardly back in my pocket.
Katie’s talking again, but there’s laughter and chaos all around us. The boys are showing off, flexing muscles hidden by somber blues and blacks, harnessed by suspenders. They heft the well-worn benches and stack them along the barn wall, jostling each other like good-natured colts.
I promised Dat I would look for a good girl to settle down with. And I reckon Katie’s as good as they come, but the horse in me tramples through my head and it’s hard to think of much else.
My gaze lands on Daniel Yoder, follows him as he lifts a bench over his head. He’s the only one near my age—the two of us have outgrown terms like “boy” and “kid.” Near outgrown Sunday singing, too.
Little Katie of the clover turns away and I realize I’ve been ignoring her something awful. I trip over an apology, but she’s already disappeared into the mingled pack of youngsters. They’re all pairing off, and I stand alone.
I brace myself with a shaky hand on the barn’s support beam. There’s a painful emptiness deep in my gut, an emptiness that’s got nothing to do with being hungry. Least not for food. It’s got everything to do with feeling walled off. Hindered. Strapped down.
Everybody’s shuffling out the barn doors and I follow the kids out into the yard. There, dozens of buggies and horses wait. All I can see is the leather straps, the gleaming bits of metal jammed between strong teeth. I hear every faint snort and whinny, catch every hoof scraped in annoyance against the earth.
It’s wrong. It’s all wrong.
I just stand there watching as Katie lets another boy take her home. I don’t know his name. Truth is, I don’t know most of their names. Our family only moved here a few months ago, and I haven’t exactly tried to get to know these kids. Weren’t for Dat, I’d never have come out tonight in the first place.
Daniel Yoder brushes past. His shoulder catches mine and something like lightning zips between us. He stops, laughs and pats my back. “Sorry ’bout that, Fisher.”
“Joash,” I say, instinctively. Fighting the trembling of my body, I offer my hand for a shake. “And… no trouble.”
His grip is firm. Warm. The wind picks up behind him and drives his scent into me. Horse-hair and sweat. My heart beats unsteady, and my stomach’s all churned up like butter.
“Joash,” he says. “Good to meet ya.”
He’s already turned away by the time I reply. “Jah… you, too.”
He drapes his arm around the shoulders of Rachel, a plump girl with a hearty laugh. They make their way to his buggy where he helps her inside. I watch their hands link, watch them smile at each other, but mostly all I see is Daniel.
I don’t understand what’s inside me. I want back the simple division of my two selves. I been this way—half horse, half human—most my life. Mam says it started when I was only five. I have no memory of that first change, but I sure remember my first time in horseflesh. It’s a crisp memory, cold and clear like frost on the grass.
The moonlight pales the skin of my upturned palm. I stare at the surface, remember the warmth of Daniel’s grip, and I shudder. I bolt forward, down the dirt road toward home. There’s no light in the Stoltzfus’ house, but I don’t trust them not to be watching. I gotta get some place safe before it overtakes me.
Before she overtakes me.
I’m breathing harsh, but it’s not the running that does it to me. It’s Daniel. His skin against mine, his voice warm like a sunrise, and those eyes—flashing in my memory a cornflower blue… And there’s a panic and I—
I plunge off the side of the road, slosh through a ditch and into a thin tree-line. Just a little bit of cover. I collapse and the change hits me like it always does.
Real sudden. Real uncontrollable. The panic is second only to the pain. I clench down to smother a scream. It hurts down to the bone. Sometimes I feel this invisible instrument scraping at marrow, unravelling me. Jabbed between joints, levering my bones apart.
My skin stretches. Burns. There is a lingering moment of agonized anticipation as I wait for it to rip like thin cotton. When it does, I am barely able to keep my silence. Skin gives way to thick, tough horse-hide. I rake my fingers through the soft soil, desperate for some anchor.
“Father, please,” I gasp, before the change takes away my voice. My prayers become whinnies. My hands become hooves. My clothes split and rip as the other part of me emerges, full in the flesh.
When it’s over, she stands there for a long moment. Her name is Belle; she’s been with me, part of me for as long as I can remember. She shakes her massive head; her flaxen mane slaps against her neck. A fly buzzes somewhere close and her tail twitches over tawny haunches. Pain recedes. Fear lingers, though it didn’t use to.
She waits. I wait.
And finally, it comes.
It’s a rush. Power. She bursts forward, out into the freshly churned soil of the Stoltzfus’ fields. Thick haunches propel her forward. Hooves reach for more ground. The wind combs invisible fingers through her coarse mane and tail.
Inside her, I give myself over to animal abandon. Here, everything is okay. There are no rules and frowning elders. There are no demands to find a spouse, to choose the church or the outside world. There is only sweat and the strain of muscle, and the wind and the grass, and the power.
Belle snorts uneasily. Slackens her pace and cocks her head to the side. There’s a fearful sensation, creeping in, and I am sick with it instead of lost in the mare’s power. She slides to an abrupt halt and whirls. There is nothing but the wind behind her, nothing but the crickets and their serenade. Her hooves churn the soil as she skitters to the side again, always looking behind.
What’s wrong? It has never felt like this before.
We are both disturbed by the sensation that she’s dragging something along behind her. An invisible buggy, a burden—and at that moment, it hits us, as one.
She’s carrying me. She always has, but now she feels it.
Our forms used to be pure inside her. Separated. When she was a horse, she was wholly a horse. When she was a boy, she was wholly a boy. She was all one thing or she was all another.
But things aren’t so simple anymore. The lines inside her feel blurry.
Pale streaks of light are beginning to bleed into the sky outside our barn. I am on my hands and knees in the straw of my stall. A neat pile of somber-colored clothes waits on a worn bench beside me and, next to it, a bucket of water and ladle.
Mam is a gut woman. Too gut for me.
When my sides quit heaving and I can finally breathe evenly, I rise on shaky legs like a newborn foal. I scoop up handfuls of water from the bucket and scrub away the sweat and grime on my chest, shoulders, and thighs. Pulling on the coarse black pants feels like a sin. They scratch against my renewed skin and the horse in me shudders. The plain white shirt clings to my still damp chest as I slide the suspenders over my shoulders with a grimace.
Mam’s smell—mostly flour, a hint of vanilla and a whole lot of fresh-baked-bread—reaches me before I hear her step behind me. She leans against the outside of the stall, peering around carefully. Our eyes meet and shame instantly fills me, a hot sensation spreading from stomach to face in a flash.
There are so many questions and tentative hopes in the lines of her face. I avoid her gaze and it’s all the answer she needs. Still, she steps closer. “Did ya meet anyone then, son?”
Yes. Daniel’s face floods my mind—the squared jaw, the slightly bent nose and that playful smile. I inhale sharply and pull Mam to me so she won’t see my face.
Mam clings like a child. Used to be, she was taller than me. Bigger than me. But that was many years ago. Now she feels too thin, too fragile. And I bear guilt for that, too. In Pennsylvania we were surrounded by loved ones—her and Dat’s cousins and sisters, brothers and grandparents.
But then I saw that Zook boy thrashing his horse. All I could see was the whites of that creature’s eyes. I could feel its panic and pain. Feel the harness and the buggy traces hemming it in on both sides, and it was scared and he kept striking it with the whip and…
“Joash?” Mam pulls back enough to look into my face. “You okay, boy? You’re shaking.”
She blinks tears from her faded blue eyes. I shake my head. Mam and Dat have been there for me, all my life; they’ve made sacrifices for my sake. I even told them about Belle. But how can I tell them about the two halves merging? About my lustful thoughts for Daniel Yoder?
“I just feel poorly for failing you, Mam. I know ya miss all—”
“Shh,” she chides, sliding an arm around me and guiding me out of the stall. “We best put the past behind us and thank the Lord for the blessings of today and tomorrow. I raised you better than to be dwelling on things such as can’t be changed.”
Things such as can’t be changed.
I do my best to put them evil thoughts behind me as I enter the kitchen with Mam. We take up our familiar places at the counter and I help her get breakfast ready for Dat. I lose myself in the comforting smells and sounds of this place: the crackle of bread’s still-warm crust as I slice through it, the sizzle and pop of bacon, the whiffs of smoke leaking from the wood-stove’s flue.
Only when the door bangs shut behind me am I pulled out of this momentary calm. Dat scrapes muck off his boots on the mat. His eyes are dark, watching me, brows pushing down in a frown as he hangs his hat on a peg. He’s a big man, dusky of hair and eyes. His skin is bronzed from hours of labor beneath the sun, and all these colors makes the bland white walls of our home seem blander.
“Been out all night, boy,” he says, his voice a thunder-rumble of judgment. “Take that as a good sign?”
He wants me to find a girl like Katie Beiler, ask to take her home in my buggy—only I never bring a buggy, ’cause I can’t stand hooking old Mae up to one. Instead, I’m spending my rumspringa stalling and changing shapes in the night. Sometimes I think he’d give up the world for my sin to be drinking, smoking, or anything other than what it is: bone-deep and unshakable.
He huffs at my silent admission and stomps into the dining room.
“C’mon now,” Mam says gently. I help her carry breakfast to the thick cherry-wood table, handcrafted by Mam’s father. We set out the serving dishes: piles of greasy bacon, rolls of spicy sausage, the still-warm braid of friendship bread, eggs scrambled the way Dat likes. I fill our glasses with chilled milk from our Jersey cow, Daisy. And Dat’s eyes follow me, a constant silent reprimand. He lets me help Mam in a way that most Amish would find shameful. Women’s work.
But if you’re half mare and half man, what does that make you? Where does that put your God-given roles and responsibilities as laid down in the Bible and the Ordnung?
Dat offers a prayer and we tuck into our meal.
My silverware lies untouched; I eat with my fingers. The taste of metal in my mouth brings back bitter memories of the day Deacon Zook found me in my horse-form and tacked me up. I shiver at the memory, almost glad when Dat speaks.
“Can’t put off the plowin’ anymore.”
The horse in me twitches. “That so?”
He’s trying to ask without asking. “Wouldn’t be gut to start out wrong. Best give the People time to get used to us, ‘fore we go adopting peculiar ways again.”
My hands clench under the table. Mam’s eyes are on us. Tension whirls around us like smoke off pine brush.
“Mae’s too old for that kind of work,” I say. An image flashes in my mind—old Mae harnessed up straining as she drags the plow. Muscles bunching, hooves slipping in the soil.
“Joash, we got to be careful—” Dat starts.
I stand. My knees jar the table. Milk splashes out of my glass. With shaking hands, I use my napkin to clean up the mess. “It ain’t right,” I whisper. “I can’t…”
Most times, I control the change. But the need is always inside me, sometimes burning hot and sometimes just embers in my belly. Whenever I get tore up with emotions, she surges to the front of my mind. Same thing happens when I go too long without letting her out—like with the Deacon that time. Never should’a turned mid-day like that; I learned my lesson well.
Dat’s standing now, too. He’s got his hands out as if to show he isn’t going to hurt me. He’s treating me like the animal inside me. Careful not to spook me.
My eyes are wet when I meet his gaze. “Please, Dat…”
His jaw clenches as he steps for the door. “So be it. Best hope Mr. Knowlton’s got time to tend to our work then.” His heavy tread sounds his retreat through the kitchen. The door slams and I settle shakily back on the bench.
Dat’s off to hire an English farmer and his tractor. The Ordnung isn’t specific about hiring your fieldwork out, but I know what kind of disapproval the act will bring down upon my family’s head. We used the English when necessary, but they’re still outsiders.
My family’s given almost everything for me.
Come next Sunday Singing, I’m going to ask to take Katie Beiler home. It’s the right thing to do.
The steady clip-clop of hooves and the rattle of buggy wheels signal the arrival of our neighbors. My fingers freeze up, still carefully holding the needle. Mam’s stopped her quilting, too, and we listen to the muffled chatter of masculine voices.
The kitchen door opens and I scramble back from the quilt.
It’s only Dat. “Put down your woman’s work now. I need ya.”
I move to the window and peer out. A dozen buggies and strapped-up horses. I wince. When I catch sight of Daniel amongst a group of young men our age, my heart stutters. I straighten quickly and face Dat. “Mam needs me—” I’d been helping her sew the wedding quilt. Mam was always more kind, open, and understanding about my peculiarities.
Dat grips my sleeve in one strong hand and lowers his voice. “I ain’t asking, boy. I did what you wanted and hired out the fieldwork, now you gotta at least act like you might be a man.”
Mam inhales sharply, but doesn’t speak against her husband. I reel back from his words, but he’s already dragging me toward the door. I shake him loose to pull my boots on. When he closes the door behind us, he does it nonchalantly, as if nothing is wrong.
It isn’t normal for Amish families to keep secrets this big. The weight of this settles on me as I tuck my hat down against the sun.
The young men are gathered around the skeleton of a barn we’ve been in the process of raising. Bare blond rafters and stacks of sheet metal wait for us.
“Hullo, Joash!” Daniel calls. The group parts, allows me in. They nod a welcome, but I can feel the distance even in that expression. Most of them are bearded—a sign of their marriages. Daniel and I are the only two clean-shaven men.
“Hello,” I offer back, mustering a smile.
The group passes back and forth some friendly banter as if I’m not even there. I can’t keep my eyes off Daniel as he joins right in. There isn’t a scrap of fear or awkwardness in him. It’s like God took all the strength and courage of a self-assured stallion and wove it into this man standing before me. My face flushes hot and I wipe sweat out of my eyes.
On the roof, the entire unit moves in tandem, laughing and sweating and striving together. I fumble with the sheet metal. It’s hot and the edges are sharp. I nearly let a piece slide down off the rafters, but Daniel catches it in time.
“Ach, you act like you never roofed a barn before, Joash,” he says, smiling.
“Jah, been a while,” I lie. I grip the rafter between my thighs and help him hold the sheet as a few other fellows begin bolting it down.
“Here.” Daniel steps across the rafters as if he’s skipping over a puddle and offers me a pair of gloves from his back pocket. “Helps with the edges.”
Our fingers brush as I accept the gloves. For a heartbeat, we remain that way, hands touching under the safety of the garment, and our eyes meet. Something sharp and wistful passes through me. I want him—really and truly, in a way that terrifies me. I keep telling myself it’s just the horse in me, but I don’t know anymore. Daniel’s lips curve in a gentle smile, like he knows, like he sees the hidden parts inside me. But then he breaks the contact, retreats to his spot on the roof.
“Th-thanks,” I say, then clear my throat. Normally the gloves would feel unnatural—and I can hear Belle echoing her distaste in my mind—but today they feel like a gift. Like a sign of… something that can never be.
We work through the heat of the afternoon. I lose myself in watching Daniel. He works quickly, chattering with a lightness I envy. The muscles under his tanned forearms bunch and cord as he hefts the sheet metal up over the rafters. The other men in their white shirts and dark pants blur around us until I am completely lost in the rhythm of Daniel’s words, the marvel of his strong hands.
Someone nudges my shoulder and I jump.
“Fisher, you gonna help us or what?” I blink, blush, and realize that they’ve all moved on to the next panel. They’re all looking at me.
“I-I’m sorry. The sun…”
Dat’s dark-eyed frown lingers on me from the other side of the roof; Daniel’s still laughing, his cornflower blue eyes twinkling like something magical. I’m all mixed up and it’s hard to focus on keeping my footing.
When the laughter settles down, a few of the men around me start humming hymns from the Ausbund. The words of praise to God usually have a lulling effect on me, but I hear Deacon Ezra Beiler, Katie’s father, ask a question of my father.
“So what ’cause you got for hiring them English tractors, Abram?”
The humming drifts into silence. Now there is only the warping cry of sheet metal and the steady breathing of the men around me. My body tenses as I peek at Dat on the other slope of the roof.
He settles back on his heels, meets my gaze briefly before looking to Deacon Beiler. “We’s still settling in. Our mare is gettin’ too old for that kind of work and I ain’t had the time to get a new one.”
A moment’s silence. My pulse pounds through my temple at the lie my father told. I yearn to fly apart, to fly into Belle, and leave behind the burdens of this world.
I walked Katie Beiler home from singing. She asked why I didn’t have a buggy.
Seems like I have to lie more and more every day. I thought about marriage, the way the lies would pile up like the husks of dead leaves.
She’s a true beauty—not just in the coils of wheat-blond hair under her kapp and those bluebell eyes always seeking mine—but in her heart and soul. She has a gentle way with animals and seems especially fond of her dat’s dairy cows. She told me, as we walked, of a time when she’d helped one of the cows with a difficult birth. Her eyes glittered with unashamed pride as she told me of tying twine to the babe’s front legs and pulling with the cow’s contractions.
“I named him Jonah,” she said with an easy laugh. She laughs like that often and speaks kind of everyone. In that way, she is so similar to Daniel. But of course, she isn’t.
But I won’t be selfish. And life is all sacrifice, all struggle. I’ll join the church, let them baptize me, pray they never find out what I am. I’ll lie to Katie—assuming she accepts me as her husband. I’ll lie with Katie in one bed and raise a family and pray they’re not cursed like me.
I used to pray for God to take this thorn out of my flesh. I used to ask him why he did this to me. And I used to be afraid that maybe he didn’t make me this way. Maybe I did something when I was little, so bad it cursed me.
As I step onto our porch, I square my shoulders. There’s a soft flickering light from the lantern in the dining room. Did Mam wait up for me again? Standing outside the door, I try to summon up strength like Daniel’s got. No more thoughts of him. No more. You just gotta shut that off. My eyes sting. I blink back the tears, try to shove back Belle as she noses her consciousness into mine. We want something more than what we’re about to choose.
We want more than a lie of a life with Katie Beiler.
We want more than pretending to be one of these people, and all the while hiding our true self.
But this is what we must do.
Mam and Dat are huddled around the lantern at the table, their hands linked. They both look up and even in the wan light I can see Mam’s puffy, red-rimmed eyes. Dat’s jaw keeps working in the way that tells me he, too, is near tears.
“Mam? Dat? What’s—”
“Sit down,” Dat says, and he doesn’t sound angry. He sounds tired, and somehow that’s worse.
I obey. Fear pulses through me and I remember the way they looked when they told me we had to leave Hickory Hollow. It was my fault then. Is it my fault again?
“Bishop Stoltzfus came by this evening,” Dat says.
“Why?” My voice croaks and I’m suddenly parched.
Mam’s shaking, but she won’t speak. She bows her head, graying strands of hair escaping her kapp.
“He gave us a warning ’bout using the English tractors,” Dat continues. There’s still no anger in his dark eyes. They reflect the flame, they do not harbor it. “Says it’s not in line with the spirit of the Ordnung. He thinks we do it for the convenience. ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat.'”
“I-if we don’t stop—” Mam says, but can’t finish.
I scoot down the bench so my knees brush hers and I rest a hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, Mam. I’m so sorry.” She doesn’t need to finish. If we don’t stop, we’ll be cast out. Again.
Mam draws herself up when she sees my tears. She straightens her shoulders. “We can find another home. We can try again. One of those less… them modern orders, where—”
“No.” My whisper stops her.
“That’s not all,” Dat says. “Bishop says you got to choose your path before the week’s out. He had to tell Daniel Yoder the same thing.”
The utterance of Daniel’s name makes me flinch. So we’ve both got to choose. Conflicting thoughts surge through me and the trembling begins in my hands; I remember and long for the surety of hooves.
Squeezing Mam’s hand gently, I stand. “Use the horse, then.” It’s hard to speak when I’m trembling like this. My vision is blurry, but I catch the surprise in Dat’s voice.
“No more tractors.”
“Are you sure, Joash?” Mam sounds as broken as I feel. Gratitude and love flood my chest, and they are warm feelings, but they are not enough.
“Jah, I’m sure. And I’ll join the church. Bishop ain’t gotta worry about that.”
I’ve got to get outside before Belle tears me apart.
Belle rears and scrapes her hooves against the sky. We fly across the fields, mindless of the corn and wheat shoots we trample. I try to lose myself in the rhythmic pounding of her hooves.
Despite a recent rain, the night is steamy and hot. We shift and slide on the slick soil as we run. Sweat froths on our neck, our chest. Belle no longer flinches or skitters away, trying to see her burden. We are becoming one.
And we’re both wondering how we’re going to carry this lie for the rest of our lives.
We stretch low over the ground, avoiding Amish and English homes alike. We streak toward the trees surrounding Barrowman’s Pond. The thought of cool water, washing over our steaming body and soothing our feverish minds, is appetizing, like sweet clover calling.
I am trying not to think of how I will ask Katie to marry me when Belle pulls up sharp and snorts in surprise. We stand at the edge of the pond, surrounded by creaking trees. Cattail fronds bob around the water. A young man surfaces, splashing and triggering a cascade of ripples around him.
We do not move, Belle and I.
We are pierced. Our heart beats too fast, our breath comes too quickly as we recognize the man in the water.
Daniel Yoder tilts his head to the side as he sees us. He stands and the water comes only to his waist, leaving his bare chest dripping under the pale moonlight. The sight burns deep inside me, inside us both. With Belle at the helm, my feelings are amplified. She trembles.
“Well, hullo there,” Daniel says. “You slip out of somebody’s pasture?”
Belle snorts. Scrapes her paw greedily through the mud. She wants to bolt into the water, but for the first time, I am fighting her, trying to wrangle her back.
Daniel steps toward us. His clothes are piled in a heap on top of a nearby boulder. Our gaze rolls over the muscles of his chest, the strong shoulders and forearms, the abs rippling down to…
Daniel pulls on his trousers. His suspenders loop over his bare, wet shoulders. Belle snorts and shakes her head. He smiles as he rubs his hand down the length of our face. He caresses our muzzle and laughs when Belle nuzzles her head against his hard chest. His skin is surprisingly soft. He slides his hands down our neck and we tremble. The slow slide of his skin against ours makes every part of us feel painfully awakened. It should be enough—this gentle touch—but it isn’t. She needs more. Panic shoots through me as she presses our body into his.
His edges are sharp against us, his touch playing against my hunger and I—
I need more and there’s a panic and I—
Belle screams a protest as we begin unravelling. Our vision blurs, pain seeping in on every front as we collapse in the wet clay. Daniel stumbles back and the removal of his touch eases off some of my panic, but it’s not enough. My fear is redoubled as Belle’s bones grind down. Pressure in my chest, in my head. No, no! Not in front of him.
He doesn’t run. I can hardly see him through the tears in my eyes—eyes that are being squeezed and pushed and compressed into the proper size to fit my shrinking skull. Rough horsehide sloughs off in peels, as if grated away by an invisible hand. The strength of my hooves is lost to trembling fingers. When at last my world stops blurring, when my body stills, I am curled up in the mud. Belle’s last whinny twists into words, “God, please!”
I can’t raise my eyes. The mud is cool against my new, naked skin. My breathing is wet and thick, shuddery.
Daniel steps nearer and I am forced to look up. I try to brace for disgust, for horror, for any number of judgmental expressions I have pictured a thousand times. Instead, there is only awe in the clean lines of his face. His eyes are wide, glittering by the moonlight as he crouches down and carefully extends one shaking hand.
“…Joash?” His voice is breathy.
My stomach churns as I wipe tears from my face. “Daniel.” I sit back on my haunches, hands struggling to hide myself. He glances down, then away. There’s color in his face, as if he’s just worked a full day under the heat of the sun. He whirls to his pile of clothes and returns quickly with his shirt. I accept it when he presses it into my hands.
I cover myself and whisper a raspy thanks. Another few heartbeats of silence. We stare at each other and I am sick with dread. I shiver with it.
“I-I’m sorry you…” I start, but the words escape me. “I’m sorry.”
He’s already shaking his head. “I find myself speechless, Joash. And I tell you that is not a frequent thing!” He laughs, and the sound is a little skittish, but still warm. “I don’t even know what to say.”
I drop my head. If I could, I would turn and flee, but his shirt cannot hide the truth of me. “I know. It’s… horrible. I think I am cursed—”
“No.” He kneels beside me, laying his hand on my shoulder. I shiver, but he doesn’t pull away. His eyes are full of an earnestness that strikes me in the chest. “It is a wonder, brother.” That light in his eyes, that awe! “Truly. I knew our God was a God of wonders, but this…” He laughs again and it is a merry sound that washes over my bruises and my fears. “Joash, it cannot be a curse. It is a sign of the Lord’s power.”
“Y-you don’t think I am… wrong? An unclean thing?” My hand rises to his shoulder, emboldened by his touch.
“An unclean thing? More like a miracle. It is a gut thing, do you not think? A gift to be embraced, welcomed, even. I—”
I cannot stop the tears. I sag against him, my forehead against his bare shoulder, and I am powerless under the sway of this relief. Belle is, for once, at peace within me. We are both still, even as our shoulders shake with all that has been held back and pressed down. Daniel’s hand still rests gently on my shoulder and he does not pull away. His warmth is overwhelming; I feel his breath on my neck and only when the heat of my attraction rises do I pull away, necessarily.
“I’m sorry,” I say again, wiping my face.
He squeezes my shoulder and stands. “Do not be. I have very many questions for you, Joash. I would ask them all, but I have to get back.”
The thought of him leaving rips at my insides. I start to rise, then stop, clutching his shirt against me. “I-I could take you… carry you, wherever you need go.”
His head cocks to the side as he considers me for a moment. I fear my voice was too eager, my expression too hungry. Then a smile cracks his face and he nods. “Jah, if it wouldn’t trouble you?”
Heat rises up my neck as I surrender to Belle again. The change is slower this time, but no less painful. I am aware of Daniel’s marveling eyes upon me as my bones are leveraged apart, as they groan and lengthen. Pain blinds me, a half-human, half-horse cry escaping my lips. My skin shudders, then gives, an audible rip that rises into the night air.
Within moments, my weakness becomes strength. My flesh becomes hide. I am strong and sturdy and I rise to see his shining face. He laughs again and scoops up the rest of his clothes. When he returns to us, he stands at our side. “May I?”
When we bob our head, forelock dancing over our eyes, he grabs a fistful of our mane in one hand. We’ve never tolerated a person on our back. That one time under the harness was enough. But there is no suppressing leather now, no metal bit between our teeth.
There is only Daniel. He climbs on our back and speaks softly, “You are a wonder of God, Joash, and a gut man.”
The next minutes pass in a slow blur. It is hard to feel guilty for enjoying Daniel when he is so near, when his touch is constantly on my neck. My neck. Because Belle and I are the same now, or soon will be. The lines inside me dissolve like sugar in water. This is my powerful body. These are my strong hooves, my wild gaiety and fierce exuberance for life. Yet, there are still parts of me that are afraid. There are parts of me that still reprimand me for this sin. I am at once happy and miserable.
But I am one. I am whole. I am wholly man and wholly horse.
Why did it take Daniel to bring me to this conclusion? His knees hug the barrel of my sides and his hands are bunched in my mane and it feels so right, and I am no longer a secret. He beheld me and he did not turn away. He saw in me the handiwork of God, not the abomination I have always deemed myself. He accepted me and if he can accept that, perhaps… Perhaps I could stay. I could live a lie for the rest of our community if only I knew Daniel knew and cared, if only I… If I could tell him…
I begin to carry him home, but he directs me elsewhere. We trot down dusty dirt lanes, lined with sentinel-straight oak trees. We move under the moon, then under the branching shadows of trees.
We reach a home I do not recognize. My heart beats quicker as I try to find words to express how he moves me, how I am constantly lost in thoughts of him. I am still grasping the edges of these slippery words when the door opens and Rachel slips out. When she nears, I see joy in her face. Daniel slides off my back, still shirtless, and pulls her into an embrace. They whisper back and forth, affirming vows that will soon be spoken in front of everyone.
Daniel kisses Rachel and a cry, both equine and human in its torment, wrenches from my lips as I stumble back. Daniel flinches, turns, and our eyes meet. My sides rise and fall unsteadily as he disentangles himself from the girl and steps to my side. He brushes his fingers against the side of my face and there is something like an apology on the fullness of his lips. A shadow flickers over his strong cheekbones.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Joash.” His voice is low, so she cannot hear.
I sway, but keep my feet. I nicker softly and brush my head against his shoulder. He turns, drapes an arm over my head, and the warm susurrus of his voice and breath flood my neck.
“I can’t,” he says. “You need something I haven’t got in me. I don’t… But I meant it back there, brother. This is a gut thing. You are a gut thing. You mustn’t forget that.”
Through the rumbles of pain, thundering inside me, I nuzzle his chest. I enjoy the touch for just a moment longer.
And then I turn and trot away. It takes every ounce of resolve I have to leave him behind, but I do not turn and I do not look back. Still, he fills my thoughts. I let his words echo in my head. It’s hard to think through the pain, but something in me feels alive and awake, almost hopeful.
Daniel welcomed the truth about me. I can’t be with him, but I can take his words with me. Beyond the cornfields and Sunday singings, I will find someplace both man and mare can call home. This world is big, bigger than Amish and English put together. Shadows litter the path ahead, and I do not know the way. A thrill of fear almost makes me almost want to turn back.
Instead I race under the moonlight. The packed dirt roads are solid as a rock beneath my hooves.
I can still feel the imprint of Daniel’s body against mine.
Maybe I always will.
Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction. Short stories are her true passion, despite a few curious forays into the world of novels. Over forty of her short stories have been published, appearing recently in Cricket Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Read Short Fiction, and more. To learn more about Alexis visit www.idreamagain.wordpress.com.
Child’s mistress was out when the scentless woman entered the shop and laid a strip of severed cloth upon the counter. For once, Child wished her mistress were at her side.
“May I help you?” Child asked around a clot of fear.
“Make me a vial of this perfume,” Scentless said, her voice honey-sweet though her sillage was hollow, “and another exactly the same, but with the tiniest hint of the sea.”
Child squinted, desperate to find a hint of the woman’s identity beneath the netting she wore across her green-brown eyes. Scentless had forgone the usual patterns women painted around their eyes. Her face was a bare mask.
Unease dampened the palms of Child’s hands. The woman was old enough to have passed her Naming Day, but no matter how Child flared her nostrils and breathed, she could not scent the woman’s name. Scentless wore the wrap all named men and women wore, covered hair-to-toe in thin black fabric to protect her skin from the poison of the sun’s red glare. The cloth of her wrap had a subtle sheen, the fabric so smooth Child could not even see the weave. She must be wealthy. The slender arc of her cheekbones rose just above the bottom of netting, hinting that she was beautiful.
And yet the woman wore no scent. She was nameless.
Even the dead smell, Child thought, then shook herself. This was business. Whatever had urged this woman to go out into the world without a name was none of her concern.
Forcing the pleasant shopkeeper-smile her mistress had taught her, Child made a show of rinsing her hands in clean water, then scrubbing them with salt and rinsing them again. She dried her hands on a fine, fresh rag, and held them up for Scentless’ inspection. The woman leaned forward, sniffed the air, and nodded her approval.
Thus prepared, Child gathered the cloth into her hands and brought it as close to her nose as she dared. The aroma was warm, spice-tinged. Cardamom and violet with the faintest whiff of balsam. The sea would be a pleasant addition to such a scent, but Child had no idea how to blend such an aroma.
“I can recreate this by this evening,” Child said, “but the addition of the sea will take time. There is no single oil for such a scent.”
Scentless inclined her head, the supple fabric of her wrap hissing softly as the folds brushed against each other. “I will need it by the full-moon,” she said, and laid a rope of silver upon the counter alongside the cloth.
Child’s throat clenched. Such a sum was no small thing to turn one’s nose up at, even if the deadline was nigh impossible. Not daring to touch the silver, lest she spoil the cleanliness of her hands, Child folded the cloth and set it aside, then took up a slip of paper and a grease pencil. She breathed deep, settling the butterflies fighting to escape through her lips.
“Forgive my asking, but what is your name? I cannot smell it on you.”
The woman’s eyes crinkled at the corners. Whether in amusement or anger, Child could not tell. “I wear none. Put what you like on your paper, I will return in three days to check upon your progress. I will bring you a gold rope if you finish in time.”
She pressed black-gloved hands together and bowed deep, then turned and stepped from the shop back into the hot red eye of the sun’s regard.
Child stared at the paper, stunned. A whole gold rope. Enough to buy her own wrap, her own name. Chewing her lip, she wrote: Scentless.
Then crossed it out, over and over again, until the name was little more than a black square. Her mistress had not been here. She did not need to know. Heart hammering, Child filled in the square until it was black as coal.
Beneath it, she began to make notes on what she had smelled in the cloth.
Ivy-beneath-cedar returned that evening with wine so rich on her breath Child scarcely scented her arrival. She staggered a step, then slung herself into a creaking chair in their workshop, squinting eyes veined with red spiderwebs at her. Child tensed, turning on her stool so that her back guarded her work, and laid her palm flat over Scentless’s receipt.
“You’re working late,” her mistress slurred.
“We had a new client today. A wealthy one.” Hesitantly, Child pulled the length of silver from the pocket of her apron. Ivy-beneath-cedar’s eyes sparked beneath the netting of her wrap, reflecting the glitter of the lantern light against the precious metal.
“What did she want for so much?” her mistress scoffed, “To change her name?”
“Cardamom-over-violet, centered with balsam,” Child added in a rush, “Two vials.”
“Well.” Her mistress heaved herself to her feet and took the length of silver from her. “That is a simple enough task for you. If you make her happy, we might use some of this for your own Naming Day. You’re meant to take the wrap in what, a month? Two?”
“Four weeks,” Child said, unable to keep a flush from creeping across her cheeks.
“Right. Good girl.” Ivy-beneath-cedar gave her a thick-handed pat on the shoulder. She straightened, brushed the rumpled folds of her wrap smooth, and then stumbled through the back door toward her bedchamber, humming an uneven tune all the while. Child’s small fists clenched. She was no fool. There would be no silver left for her by the time her Naming Day came. Ivy-beneath-cedar would drink every last silver away.
But the gold rope. That she could use.
Child smoothed the wrinkles her sweating palm had left on Scentless’s receipt and returned to her work, fingers dancing amongst warm amber bottles lit by the glow of her oil lamp. She didn’t dare burn candles—tallow and beeswax were too strong of scent, they would muddy her work. And she needed clarity now, if she were going to distill the sea.
Child walked the edge of the cold shore, bare feet sinking in rough sand. The red glare of the sun cast the pale beige granules in eerie, pink light, as if blood had been spilled across them and then diluted by the waves. Beak-pecked carcasses of sea creatures lay along her path, their poisonous flesh bulbous with tumors even after those few birds who could stomach them had picked them over. Why anyone would desire to smell like those wretched waters, Child could not guess.
The beach was empty, as it always was, save for a small group of mourning. They bundled their dead—two or three, she could not tell—onto a floating bier, set light the wooden slats, and shoved it out to sea. Child caught her breath, anger tightening her fists as flames licked up around the bier, revealing the wraps the dead had been sent to their rest within. Such a waste. But then, they had earned them. It was their right.
She turned upwind to avoid the smoke and breathed deep of the air, closed her eyes, and flared her nostrils. At the base of the scent of the sea was the brittle bark of the trees which ringed it. Warm, dry. Overlaid with the overwhelming crush of the water itself; a cool, menthol middle mingled with the wet vegetal aroma of aquatic plant-life.
But there was something else above it all, something that took those two meager elements and made them say sea. There was brine, metallic iron, and the air itself, crisp as if lightning had just struck. Both aromas too ephemeral to bottle.
She sighed, opened her eyes, and kicked clumps of sand tangled with rotted seaweed. The Cardamom-over-violet she had already made she clutched tight in her pocket, warming the hard glass with her palm. Ivy-beneath-cedar’s workshop was not suitable to this task, she did not have the ingredients required.
Child extended a finger in her pocket, felt the small thread of copper she kept hidden there, her week’s meager pay. She could buy a new fragrant oil or resin.
And then, with the gold rope, she could start her own shop. Blend her own name.
The market awnings of the city Bahat were dyed green, but in the high light of noon the tops of them turned brown under the red light. Child blended amongst the crowd as best she could, but she was tall for her age and that made her difficult to miss. She drew stares, the people of Bahat wondering just what a girl her age was doing unnamed and without her wrap.
Child paused, glancing at the backs of her hands. Even under the shade of her hat the sun’s glare took its toll. Her skin, nearly fourteen summers old, was already dry and cracked as an ancient lakebed.
Soon it would be dangerous to go without. Soon, the cracks in her skin would begin weeping dark fluids, and no emollient salve would hold the spread of the sun-sickness at bay.
Ivy-beneath-cedar wouldn’t care; apprentices were easy enough to come by. The Justice of Bahat would see no harm done—those who failed to earn enough to purchase their own wraps before the sickness took them were considered useless. Just another mouth to feed from the scorched soil.
Child swallowed, shook her head. No. She would capture the sea. She would claim the Scentless woman’s golden rope.
Embarrassment blushed her cheeks, added haste to her steps. She wove amongst the hundreds of other men and women of the market, catching hints of their names as she slipped between them. A blunt name struck her—without nuance, without balance. Myrrh-under-clove, or was it over? She couldn’t tell, the dominant notes had been blended in equal measure. The heady scents competed with one another for dominance, bludgeoning her senses.
Curiosity lifted her head and she turned, following her nose. A male silhouette familiar enough to tickle the back of her mind stood beside a market stall, weighing a bottle in his hand. The man paid for the bottle and set it in his basket—a basket she recognized. That man—no, that boy—was Lemon-over-neroli’s apprentice. Not even twelve summers, and he was already named. Poorly, but named and shielded from the sun none the less.
Child hunched her shoulders and hurried toward another merchant, eager to prove her own worth. The first stall she came too was filled with the usual base notes; sandalwood and patchouli, white musk and dark. She moved on, systematically, sniffing every single offering until her nose went numb and she was forced to rest. Child lingered near the stall of a kafa-maker so that the bitter-bright aroma of his roasted beans would refresh her senses. At the shop her mistress kept a platter of the beans for cleansing the nasal palette, but she hadn’t dared bring them with her. Ivy-beneath-cedar would suspect her of stealing before borrowing.
While Child rested, a tall woman approached and purchased kafa, her voice sweet and her eye makeup elaborate; whorls of black danced like eddies of wind around her lashes. As she turned to leave a breeze ruffled her wrap, blowing her scent towards Child’s overtired nose.
Balsam. Violet. Cardamom.
Child stiffened, sniffed the air once more to be certain. The woman drifted back into the crowd, nursing her kafa. Entranced, Child followed.
Cardamom-over-violet led her out of the market and into wider, half-empty streets, until they were climbing up winding ways and skirting the fences of homes bigger than any shop Child had ever seen.
Strange gardens grew beyond those gates, inedible plants that thrived under the harsh light, their huge leaves drooping between forbidding iron. Child attempted to slow, to blend into those lingering, but her clothes were too filthy and her feet dribbled ocean sand with each step. She did not belong here.
She did not even have a wrap to obscure that fact.
Cardamom-over-violet turned into one of those iron gates, the trailing edge of her wrap disappearing amongst vibrant greens. Child hesitated, then took a few quick steps forward, hoping to catch sight of some small clue, or just another sniff. Just to be sure.
Fingers wrapped round her arm, vise-tight, and yanked her into the greenery.
She stumbled, tripped, tried to wrench away on instinct but her other arm was grabbed and pinned to her side. Cardamom-over-violet peered at her through her wrap’s obscuring eye net, her eyes a familiar green-brown. Child stilled in her grasp.
“Why are you following me?” the woman asked, and though her voice was sweet it was not the honeyed tones Child remembered from Scentless.
“I thought I knew your scent, Cardamom-over-violet. Please forgive me, I was mistaken.”
The woman released her and leaned back, pressing her back against the gate. Relief flooded the woman’s posture, a slump came to her shoulders. “No, forgive me for grabbing you, Child. I am on edge.”
Child eased forward a half-step. “Are you well?”
Cardamom-over-violet’s head jerked forward, her shoulders squared, “I am fine, only grieving. The spirit of my sister…” She broke off, shook her head. “Never mind. I am a silly, mad woman.”
Child licked her lips, clenched her fist around the vial in her pocket. “Maybe it was your sister’s scent I recognized?”
“Impossible,” the woman snapped, “my sister drowned in the sea. An accident. Now go,” she pointed, “back to your world, little one.”
Child crossed Bahat in a haze, unable to peel her fingers from the vial. Cardamom-over-violet’s scent had been correct, she was certain of it. Her nose never lied to her, even if it was tired from a day of blending.
As she pushed her way free of the market press she caught a whiff of something, clean and sharp. Like the rain around lightning. Like the air above the sea. She froze, turned slowly, found the aroma turned with her. Shaking herself, leaves fell from her hat, their vibrant green bruised deep where they had been crushed against her. Leaves from Cardamom-over-violet’s garden.
Before they could be trod upon she scooped them up, gathered them up near her nose and breathed deep. Yes, that was it. That was the scent of the air above the sea. Now she would just need the brine. The iron.
Regret panged through her, bitter and queasy. Regret because she had already made her choice—already knew what she must do. To survive. She drew a deep breath to steady her nerves.
Every good perfumer knew where to find the scent of iron.
She glanced at the angle of the rusted sun, saw it seeping down into dusk. Ivy-beneath-cedar would be out by now, drinking away her silver.
And Child had her own key to the shop.
Scentless came the next morning. Her wrap was the same fine weave, the same loose fit. Her eyes bore no marks, but shone green-brown down at Child. A green-brown that was familiar to her now. Peering through the shadow of Scentless’s eye net, she followed the partial line of a cheekbone, marked the edge of the top of her nose. More than sisters. Twins.
Child’s fingers trembled as she sat the first vial upon the counter, nudged it forward. She had not bothered to set the wax on the cork with the seal of the shop; she wanted no link between the two.
“Here is Cardamom-over-violet,” she said, and watched the corners of the woman’s eyes twitch with subtle recognition.
“And the other?” the woman asked.
Taking a deep breath, Child set a second vial upon the counter. It was a sliver less full than the first, its cork also unwaxed.
“It is unfinished,” Scentless said, her voice as dulcet as ever.
“I need to know two things first.” Child willed strength into her voice, heard it crack anyway.
“Ask,” she said, a lilt of curiosity creeping through.
“First, will you pay me the gold?”
Scentless pulled a rope of glittering gold from within the folds of her wrap and laid it upon the counter with deliberate care. She took her hand back, leaving the gold. A promise.
Child nodded, cleared her throat. “Second. Did you drown in the sea?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed, and she gave a slight shake of the head. “No. I was drowned in the sea.”
“Give me your hand,” Child said as she uncorked the unfinished bottle and slid it forward. Scentless hesitated just a breath, then held her wrapped hand above it. Child grasped it in her own, felt the lush weave of the fabric, softer than any silk. She pricked the woman’s finger with a fine needle. Scentless sucked air through her teeth, but did not flinch.
Child squeezed drops through the cloth into the bottle. Drops that were not red. One, two. The deep-teal ichor was slow, viscous. Child whisked the bottle away and gave the woman her hand back, then stirred the mixture with the needle. Sniffed.
Metallic brine tingled her nose, mingling with the fresh-air aroma of the leaves. It would not last, the ichor would decay and lose its scent, but Child suspected it would last for as long as the woman needed.
She corked the vial, and still did not bother to wax it.
Scentless gathered both, bowed her thanks, and turned to leave.
“Wait,” Child blurted, and blushed as the woman glanced back, one thick brow raised. “What will you do?”
“This,” she held up Cardamom-over-violet, “will be for me. And this,” she held up the other, “is for the sister who squats in my home.”
Long after Scentless had gone, Child closed the shop and stepped under the red light of the sun’s regard, gold rope heavy in her pocket. In one hand she clutched a new vial, its wax stamped with a sigil of her own making. She held it to the bloodied light, the contents sloshing slow and viscous within their confines. It smelled of air and earth, of sand underfoot, and rain threatening above.
Of a storm about to break.
A fitting name, to start a new life in a new city. Far away from the nameless Child who had blended a killer’s end. Ozone-over-fern turned toward the market. She was going to need a wrap before she could buy a workshop of her own.
Megan E. O’Keefe was raised amongst journalists, and as soon as she was able joined them by crafting a newsletter which chronicled the daily adventures of the local cat population. She has worked in both arts management and graphic design, and spends her free time tinkering with anything she can get her hands on. Megan now lives in the Bay Area of California with her fiancé and makes soap for a living. It’s only a little like Fight Club. She is a first place winner in the Writers of the Future competition, vol. 30. Her website is: http://www.meganokeefe.com
Georg Cantor waits while his wife Vally pulls at the heavy door to the Nervenklinik. The crisp air smells of leaves and wood smoke, but as they pass into the white-tiled halls disinfectant envelops them.
The nurse comes and introduces herself. Cantor says nothing. He has not spoken in a month. He rarely even focuses his eyes. The nurse leads them down long passages. Their shoes snap at the marble floor. After many turns, they stop at a white door that opens to his room: a narrow bed covered with taut white sheets, a comfortable chair facing a window that looks out onto a lawn edged by waving oaks, a round rug on the cherry floor.
Vally seats him in the chair. “You need rest, Georg,” she whispers.
Cantor looks out at the oaks. They hold tenaciously to their last few leaves.
To the nurse Vally says, “We lost our dear son Rudolf. That was hard. And my husband is a professor. A mathematician. He has achieved great things. But the strain is great. And then, that wretched Kronecker in Berlin. It’s all too much.”
The nurse nods, professionally sympathetic as she straightens the room. The name means nothing to her, but the point is clear: the cruelty of other men.
Vally leaves, followed by the nurse, whose soft shoes squeak as she backs out and pulls the door till its lock clicks. Cantor holds his breath and listens. The rustle of scales against plaster is faintly audible. He expected this. The dragon is here already, coiled in the walls of the clinic.
Cantor stands and presses his cheek to the cool plaster by the window. “I hear you, wyrm,” he says.
The dragon rustles in response, contracting.
“Wyrm,” Cantor whispers, to provoke, to invoke.
Cantor kissed his son’s forehead after the boy coughed blood one last time and stopped breathing. Vally gasped and held her breath. The doctor backed into a corner, ashamed. And Cantor heard, distinctly, an eager rustling in the walls.
Two days later, when Cantor finally collapsed into sleep, he had the nightmare that silenced him and led him to the brittle quiet of the Nervenklinik.
He sees a rising narrow stair. It stretches up and up. Beyond its peak a golden light glows, pale and weak with distance. Children sit and stand on the stair. Most of them weep as they peer at the impossible summit, wishing they could catch some sliver of its meager warmth. Others have collapsed with despair, their backs turned on the light.
“Climb!” Cantor cries to them. But his voice is a choked moan. It moves no one.
That’s when the horrible thought comes to him: Rudolf is on that slope. With his weak lungs, his throat choked with blood, and without his father, Rudolf will give up. He is halted on the way, in the half darkness.
“Climb!” Cantor tries to howl. The effort does nothing but wake him.
The second night in the clinic, after the nurse leaves with the dinner plates under silver lids, clucking disapproval because Herr Doktor has merely tasted his food, the dragon folds the wall aside. Cantor is surprised. He did not know the dragon had this trick. He half expected the dragon did not exist.
It pulls at a corner, and the plaster bends neatly away. Someone will prove that kind of folding is possible, Cantor realizes. He sees in an instant how it works: sets of uncountably many points can be rearranged into new, smaller spaces.
But Cantor has other, more pressing thoughts. He beholds the dragon’s black head, its black shining scales, the smooth and sensitive circular membrane of each ear, vibrating behind a black eye. Cantor cannot discern the dragon’s tongue from the flames that churn in the cup of its jaw. Fire rattles in its throat, a sound like Rudolf’s failing lungs.
The dragon is waiting on his words. It too expects him to speak.
Cantor frowns, silent and furious. Outside, strong winds turn the last leaves of the oaks over, flashing white. Black clouds speed over the bending trees and weep rain on the windows. Thunder rumbles so close that the glass rattles in the sash. Finally, Cantor can hold back his anger no longer. He hisses, “Wyrm, did you kill my son?”
Cantor knows his son died of consumption. He knows that black spots ate the boy’s lungs. But he asks again, “Wyrm, was that you, coiled in the bottom of his breath, weighing down his every gasp?”
“I am infinite,” the dragon whispers, goaded to answer, “but not everywhere.”
They are silent together a long while. Wet gusts lash the glass. Then Cantor tells the dragon, “Kronecker says I am mad: that no such thing as infinity exists, and I am a fool to claim to have tamed it. And: I talk to a dragon. The dragon cannot exist. Hence, I talk to something that does not exist. Ergo, I am mad. But about the infinite, I don’t believe I am mad. The infinite exists. Endless infinities, each larger than another.”
The dragon shifts and scratches at a scale with a single stony toenail. “How do we know if something exists?”
“If a thing would spawn no contradiction, then that thing exists.”
The dragon stretches out its neck and lifts its wings as best it can in its parallel confines. The delicate black skin hisses over the coarse, unfinished wood slats that make the back of the wall.
“And what of the dragon?” it says. “Can there be a dragon? A beast that ate too, too much? That feasted on human hopes? Count my scales. They are as numerous as numbers. My dragon brain lies folded in my scaly tail. And my tail stretches forever.” The dragon blows twin streams of pale smoke from its nostrils: dragon laughter. The gray fumes smell of coal heavy with sulfur. “But I contradict nothing: no hope, no faith, no prayer. Thus the dragon exists.”
“Quod erat demonstratum,” Cantor whispers.
There were days when his son stopped coughing blood. One April morning they went out to the park. They sat in the grass, with Rudolf wrapped in a blanket. Crocuses thrust up through the cold, damp soil. Rudolf picked them, and Cantor did not stop him, did not ask that he wait till the blooms opened. Rudolf might not live till the blooms opened.
“You take three, father,” the boy said. He always whispered, not wanting to start a coughing fit, not wanting to punctuate his words with blood. “And I’ll take three. Six is all there are.”
“Others will grow,” Cantor told him.
“For how long?”
Cantor considered this. “For so long, that it might as well be forever.”
The boy nodded. “Time enough, then.”
Vally brings Cantor a letter from a priest in Italy. The Pater writes to ask if the infinities of Cantor contradict the finitudes that Saint Thomas Aquinas demanded of the pious. Cantor is excited. He sees in an instant how the church needs his wisdom.
“I shall abandon mathematics,” he says. “And dedicate myself to philosophy and God. Theology. The Church.”
Vally smiles with hope and relief. Georg is talking to her! Like his old self!
She clutches his hands. “Yes,” she says. “You have your inheritance. We shall be fine. Come home to us. Don’t worry about those men who spurned you. They’ll be forgotten. We miss you at home. You’re such a fine father and husband. The doctor will let you come home soon, I’m sure.”
Even the dragon has seen Cantor’s kindness. At dinner every night Cantor had asked each of his children in turn to tell the story of his or her day, before he looked to his wife and said, “Thank you for this meal.”
Every day the same. The precision of a mathematician in attending to these cares: axioms of love.
“You’ll leave before the winter,” the dragon says one gray afternoon. Cantor is surprised. He thought the dragon could speak only if spoken to.
“Before the winter,” Cantor says.
“And I will curse you.”
“What empowers you to curse, wyrm?”
“I curse everyone who wonders.”
“On such a foundation I too might have this power, and curse you in kind.”
The dragon smiles, the corners of its lizard mouth curling. “My curse comes first. Soon you’ll die…”
“Soon each mortal dies,” Cantor says impatiently. “That is no curse.”
“That is not the curse,” the dragon says. “Soon you’ll die. Then you must decide between heaven and hell. Hell is near and crowded. God is infinitely far away. If you are to ascend into heaven, you must take the Dragon’s Stair. This is my curse.” The dragon shifts his head to reveal, in the dark behind his vast bulk, a narrow stair of stone.
“The first step on the stair is carved with a name,” the dragon says.
“The second step is carved with a name.
“The third step too is so carved.
“Yes, on each step is cut a name.”
And Cantor can see the names on the risers of the first stone slabs. Falcon Ells. Edgar of Canterbury. Danniston. Ali Quartermain…
“God is at the top,” the dragon says. “You climb toward God. But if you find your name on a step, you must stop there, and wait. You must wait until Judgment Day, both feet on your stone plinth.
“And Judgment Day has never come.
“Judgment Day, like God, is infinitely far away.
“No saint has made it up the stair. The innocent wait, despairing, along the way.
“Heaven is empty.”
Rudolf was usually fearless. But when he last lay down in his bed, never to rise again, he said to Cantor, “I’m scared, Papa.”
Cantor fought his tears with all his strength. He did not want to weep in front of the boy and betray his failing hope. He managed to say, “Our bodies must die. But our minds, our minds can touch the infinite.”
Rudolf nodded his head very slightly, his mouth pressed closed in determination.
“And,” Cantor said, “you must have faith that you cannot fail to find your way to God.”
“But will I be alone?” Rudolf whispered.
“Only ever for a little while. I promise you, only for a very little while.”
Outside the clinic, the leaves on the oaks darken and curl as autumn ages. Cantor scrawls symbols on stolen scraps of paper, working in secret because he has promised to remain at leisure.
“Wyrm, what is it you do, when you are not haunting me?” Cantor asks.
The dragon folds down the wall. “I sing from rooftops, hidden from view. I paint murals on buried walls. I pen short stories that are printed in little magazines. All to infect dreams.”
“Braggart,” Cantor says. Then he switches direction: “Who decides my name?”
The dragon understands the question immediately. “You do.”
Cantor smiles. “Can I name myself while climbing the stair?”
The dragon thrashes its tail in anger. It growls, and blows smoke, before it answers. “You must start to say your name before stepping upon the way.”
“But I need not finish naming myself before starting on the way?”
The dragon is silent an hour. Cantor listens to the fire fluttering in its lungs. He patiently writes out his proof as he waits for his answer.
“No,” the dragon hisses, leaking flames that cast flickering shadows along the walls. “You need not finish naming yourself before starting on the way.”
“I choose heaven,” Cantor says.
“Do not be hasty. You can wait till death before you choose.”
“I choose heaven,” Cantor repeats. “And I will choose a name for myself, a name to be writ in the Book of Judgment and to which I will answer.
“And the first letter of my name will be the letter in the alphabet that comes after the first letter of the name of the first step of the Dragon’s Stair. If it be A, I will choose B. If it be B, I will choose C. And so on. If it be Z, I will choose A.
“And the second letter of my name will be the letter in the alphabet that follows the second letter on the second stair.
“And so I will make my name, letter by letter, step by step, as I ascend.
“And this name cannot be writ on any step.”
The dragon clamps its trembling eyelids down and squeezes its mouth shut hard, choking on its own fires. Bested.
The wall is straight and white when the dawn comes. Cantor puts both hands on the plaster by the window, and says in a clear voice, “Here is my curse, dragon. You must tell, to all who will hear, this story of how I beat you.”
Before the dragon can answer, Vally pushes open the door. The nurse has brought a key that allows her to open the window. She slides the glass upward. Fresh air stirs in the room. The leaves have all fallen now from the oaks. The trees wait for the sleep of winter.
Vally packs Cantor’s few things. Her hand on his arm, they walk out into the hall and on into sunlight.
“Soon you’ll be dead,” the dragon hisses. No one hears. “Soon you’ll be alone in heaven.” But this is only spite. The dragon well knows that as Cantor rises on the way, he will gather to himself all the children of judgment and show them the way to infinity.
Craig DeLancey is the author of Gods of Earth. He has published stories in Analog, Cosmos, Shimmer, The Mississippi Review Online, Nature Physics, and other places. His short story “Julie is Three” won the Anlab reader’s choice award. He teaches philosophy at Oswego State. Stop by his web site at www.craigdelancey.com.
The stars are all dead. You wish it didn’t haunt you, but it does, it does.
The dead come out to watch over you at night.
A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.
You tried to bring her back to life. Someone told you—wish on a star—so you wished, wished hard as you could. You didn’t know you were wishing on ghosts.
Some days, your wish came true. She looked at you those days, read you books, put on new clothes.
But the next day she’d go back to stumbling through the house.
There is a girl lying at your feet. She is the kind of dead that cannot make sandwiches, cannot blink, cannot stumble. You pick up her body and carry it to the trunk.
You drive for miles and miles. The silence is too heavy, too much. You turn on the radio to drown it out—only it’s all Kurt Cobain, Donny Hathaway, Mindy McCready, Nick Drake. You switch to Catcher in the Rye, the only audiobook you own.
The narrator sounds like your mother.
“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.”
Your mother would have been good at that, if she hadn’t been dead most days. She’d said it sounded like the best job, maybe the only worthwhile job. There was something other about your mother, something reaching for magic in a dull, dirty world. You wish you could have caught children with her in the rye, but that’s not the job she left you.
You get to the spot, near the river. You get the body. You get the shovel. You feel the weight of the stars as you dig and dig and dig.
Don’t fall, you think, don’t fall. Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall.
But stars will do what they want. People, too, when they are hopeless. You can’t reason with the hopeless, can’t make them love you enough to stay.
You wonder who the dead girl is. You wonder where she comes from, where any of them come from, the ones who just . . . appear beside you when the sun goes down. You lower the girl in the unmarked grave, careful of her left wrist, sliced wide open, and deep, so deep, like she was digging for something. A way out, maybe—she found it. You wonder how much blood she left behind.
It doesn’t matter. A bathtub might be painted in blood, a razor in the sink, an apology upon the glass—but if there’s no body, then no one’s dead, not for sure, not for forever. There is always room to hope, for those who are left behind. This is what you can do for them. This is what you can do for the world.
It’s important work, you know. It’s a gift others can’t bring themselves to give—but you don’t understand how the dead find you, how they know to seek you out. You don’t understand why the bodies keep coming to you and you alone.
Another girl appears at your side before you finish burying the last one. There are rope burns around her broken neck.
It’s going to be a busy night.
You found it before you found her, submerged and naked in the bathtub:
I wish you didn’t have to find me. I wish there was someone to take my body away, hide it somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and you could just keep on going, pretend I was somewhere golden, catching everyone in the rye.
I’m sorry, she wrote. I’m sorry.
But is she sorry she left, or for what she left to you?
The sun is just beginning to rise as you finish burying the bodies. Six in all. Very nearly a record.
You wish you had another job. You wish you could help in some other way, become a detective, maybe, find clues, fight crime. Provide closure instead of preserving open wounds. You even wish the police would catch you, but the bodies, they wouldn’t stop. They’d just follow you to your cell, their cold flesh piling between your bed and the bars. If only you knew what ghost your mother had wished on, to make a prophecy of her regret.
You’d wish her back, if you knew what ghost. You’d wish she’d stayed for you.
When you sleep, you dream about stars falling. They drop down and down by the dozen, and you have to pick them up, bury them somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and then nobody will start crying; nobody will be afraid. Everyone will just stand together, holding hands, whispering that the stars could always come back, that they’re just traveling somewhere else now, some other, better, magical place.
Carlie St. George is a Clarion West graduate whose work has appeared in Lightspeed, Shock Totem, and Strange Horizons. When she’s not busy incorporating her odd obsession with peanut butter sandwiches into even her most macabre and melancholy stories, she blogs extra-snarky movie reviews at mygeekblasphemy.com
Isa died in a sudden suffocation of boiling blood and iron cinder in her mouth; she returned to herself wearing a blue cotton dress stained with fresh tobacco. She was younger and leaner, as she’d been when she first met Leslie Bell. Her skin shone dark and warm without the black dust of the mill ground into it.
After death, ghosts are sculpted like cold clay into the shapes they wore when they were most alive. Some people are taken awfully by surprise. Women whose whole lives were about their husbands and homes are, without warning, precisely as they were when they met a stranger’s eyes on a crowded streetcar. Men who had the kinds of careers that involved velvet-lined train cars and cigar smoke are suddenly nine years old, running their spectral fingers through the tall grasses and thinking of nothing at all.
Isa wasn’t surprised by the blue cotton dress. She had always known what she was about.
She came back to herself, with a feeling like hot wire being drawn through the die, in the rusty gravel on the west side of the Sparrows Point steel mill. She was disoriented for a moment, used to seeing the mill like a distant map below her from the top of Betty the blast furnace: the glowing arcs of welders and the arterial railways pumping coal and ore and sand and coke through the mill, and the distant rows of clapboard homes where her daughters waited for The Adventures of Superman to come on the radio at 5:15.
The foreman was coming up the road towards the mill with his white arms resting across the shoulders of two young, dark girls. Isa’s children. Oh, she hated the weight of that arm on her daughters’ perfect shoulders. Vesta—tall, brave Vesta, who fried eggs every morning for her little sister before school—walked like a person who had lost the trick of it. Effie’s oversize lunch pail banged against the side of her leg with every step. Their faces were like stones, or the faces of children who have lost their mother and father, and seen the red-hot maw of the world open up beneath their feet.
Isa already knew, but her daughters’ faces told her she was truly dead and could never hold her children again. The rage and pain and wishing-away of it swallowed her whole and she lost track of herself for a while.
Ghosts don’t linger, much. A few days of strolling through the world, which is much too loud and bright, then the dirt calls them down to trickle amongst the low, burrowing things to lose the boundaries of themselves in the rich smell of rot. Some stay, in the name of love or vengeance, but most people are pragmatists at heart, and lay themselves down to rest.
Isa lingered. Leslie used to call her mule-headed. Some parts of herself frayed and tattered when she died—the taste of grits with molasses on them, the way her daughter’s tight-braided hair felt beneath her palm—but not the mule-headedness.
That first night she stayed so close to her daughters they felt a constant, humid chill down their necks. She walked beside them as they returned to their home, identical to a hundred other homes in Sparrows Point: a single, dirty box with a bare bulb dangling in the center, a leaky parlor stove in the corner. She touched the tears on Effie’s face with moth-wing fingers. She followed Vesta to the back stoop where, unwatched by her younger sister, she beat her fists on the stones and tore her tight braids lose. When her children finally closed their eyes in the center of the rope bed they shared, she lay down and slipped her arms around them. Effie shivered and burrowed further beneath the blankets.
Isa told herself she would only stay through that first terrible night. But dawn found her in the kitchen running frictionless fingers across the parlor stove, wanting badly to fall into the morning rhythm of coal and cooking. She pulled at the stove door, but she was a breeze blowing against a rusted-iron mountain, and it remained closed.
She pulled harder. The faint edges of her fingers frayed and spooled, half-slipping into the door, and she felt every humped weld and fractured seam in the parlor stove before it creaked obediently open.
She ripped away from it, reeling, and her other hand landed in the bowl of eggs on the counter. Beneath her weightless palms, the eggs rotted in their shells.
She did not touch anything else that morning, but huddled on a kitchen chair remembering the sweet slipping-away of her hands into the iron, feeling both fragile and dangerous.
Vesta rose and fixed breakfast, casting suspicious glances at the open stove and the faintly graying eggs. When her sister set a tin plate of grits in front of her, Effie burst into sudden, loud sobs.
“Effie. Effie, listen honey.” Vesta sounded so much like her mother that Isa’s hands shook. “Persephone.” The occult power of her full name stopped her.
Vesta sat and pulled her sister’s gangling legs into her lap, and spoke to her in a tone that no fifteen-year-old should have to use and no nine-year-old should have to hear. “Listen: Momma and Daddy are both dead, and it’s just us two girls left. But we can’t sit around and bawl about it, can we?” Effie’s expression said she didn’t see why not.
“No, we can’t,” Vesta continued. “Remember what Momma did when they came to tell us about Daddy? She made biscuits and swept the floor and combed our hair.” And then she’d gone to the common privy and vomited until she had nothing left in her but bile and despair. Some of the neighbor women fluttered as though they might say something, but she bared her teeth at them like a feral creature and they’d all remembered things they had to rush home and tend.
“That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pack our lunches and go to school and come home and make beans and a hambone for dinner.” And, because they were each trying so fiercely for the other, that’s what they did.
Isa stayed in the house. She couldn’t wash their dishes or fold their nightgowns, flung across the bed with the abandon of children who haven’t yet realized there’s no one left to pick up after them. But she could murmur to Effie’s cat—a slinking, ugly animal that only a nine-year-old could think was pretty, alternately named Lord Snowflake or Dustbucket depending on the quantity of coal grit in his fur. He wound himself around Isa’s ankles, purring with the conviction of a former stray. He didn’t seem to mind that she was dead. Cats have never seen the allure of the dualistic philosophies that plague humans, and some of our most cherished divisions—between right and wrong, life and death, rodents which are acceptable to kill and songbirds which are apparently not—seem rather arbitrary to them. She stroked him, and pulled her thoughts away from the dark, Southern earth that called her.
In the early afternoon, Isa went to the edge of the bay and waited for Leslie’s ghost to come home to her across the ocean. She wondered if war had changed him, and if he’d died with one of her letters in his breast pocket.
Yellow-gray steam boiled out of the mill and hung over the Liberty ships bobbing in the bay like deadly toys. She saw the ships the way a surgeon might see a person, looking through their steel skins to the skeletons of beams and welds running through their bodies. Isa wondered if the men who went to war saw the labor of their wives and sisters in the steel around them. She wondered if their labor was winning the war and saving their soldiers, the way the posters said, or if it was all just coal tossed into the ravenous belly of war.
Leslie did not come.
She went to the bay every afternoon for days or maybe weeks; time is a humped and lurching thing for ghosts. Effie’s cat followed her, genially acknowledging the other ghosts they passed. Isa recognized some of them easily, but many of them were unfamiliar to her as their past selves. Few people were at their best in Sparrows Point; most of them had traded away the smell of summer rain on the fields for the heat and stink and incredible noise of the mill town, on the promise of a regular paycheck. Most of them dreamed of going home.
Isa dreamed too, during the long nights when she lay weightless beside her daughters. But ghosts only dream of the past.
She dreamed of her first day in the mill, hired because the foreman liked the way her shoulders pushed against the seams of her dress and the unfashionable shortness of her hair. “Just about like hiring a man, isn’t it Sissy?”
He clapped her on the back and led her to a group of other new women, and spoke to them all about the war and the state of the nation and the sacrifices everyone had to make. He handed out aprons and warned them that long hair, fingernails, and jewelry were safety hazards. Isa touched her locket, a tarnished heart containing three ebony curls of hair, and tucked the chain beneath her collar.
At first, they put her in the black places below the ground, shoveling coal. She became a sweating, muscled beast in the center of a labyrinth, trying to shovel her way out of the dark. Her dreams of that time were scattered and clogged with coal dust.
Moving up to the top gang was rising out of the underworld into spring. “This here is Betty, the biggest blast furnace in the East.” The woman training her was short and gap-toothed, with dark rings around her eyes where her goggles sat. Later, Isa would find out that her name was Mary and she was from Lewisburg and her twin brother was a mess man on the USS West Virginia and they would be friends.
“Listen, this is the truth: Betty Grable might keep our boys happy when they’re over there with nothing but a couple of pin-ups, but our Betty is the one that saves their goddamn lives.” Isa could tell it was a worn joke, but Mary was proud of it.
She worked years on the top gang, climbing up and down Betty’s vast, many-tentacled body twice a day. They kept the vents clean and the charger rolling and they skimmed the flammable dust off every surface. They couldn’t speak to each other, with their faces buried in the rubber and metal of gas masks and the roar of the furnace deafening them, but they learned to read the language of each other’s bodies. When the wind blew the smog out over the bay and cleared the sky, when she and her team worked in a perfect dance of sinew and iron on top of the world, Isa was happy.
Often, Isa dreamed of Mary’s accident: Mary leaning over the hatch of the northernmost stove, hauling it open—a sheet of blue-white flame, Mary’s screams just audible over the mill’s grinding thunder. Mary came back to work with her left arm a black and pink mass of lumped scar. One-handed, she was only good as a tin-flopper or a record-keeper.
Isa met Mary for lunch on her first day back and neither of them said a word about it. The foreman strolled by and thumped Mary on the back and told her she was a real trooper, and left a Moon Pie on the bench “in case she was homesick.”
Mary unwrapped the pie from its filmy plastic. Then she crushed it, methodically, beneath her boot. She said, calmly, “Goddamn them all to hell, Isa. They want you to think we’re serving God and country—and an old white man who sure as hell isn’t any uncle of ours. But we’re just serving Mr. Eugene Grace and his ten thousand foremen, always patting us on the goddamn back and calling us his girls. And you want to know the part that eats me up at night? Soon as my brother comes home they’ll boot me and my bum arm right out and I’ll never see a fair wage or the top of Betty again.”
Isa didn’t say anything. “Ah, you already know it. I know you do. This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.”
The rest of her dreams were of Leslie, and the girls when they were young.
Leslie did not come.
If Leslie could have come to her, he would have. It wasn’t something Isa believed about her husband, the way wives believe their husbands never look at other women or won’t drink up their paychecks, but something she knew about him and her and the shape of the thing between them. It was like knowing which way was north, or how much buttermilk to add to the biscuit dough.
She worried that death in battle was different, and Leslie’s ghost had been ripped asunder. But steel was war, too, and her death was surely no less violent and fiery and brave than his. Or maybe he’d gotten lost in the unfamiliar shapes of a foreign landscape.
But Leslie never got lost. If he could have come to her, he would have, and no oceans or continents could ever have stopped him. And so, no matter what those typewritten letters had said, shining up from the page like tiny, blackened bones, Isa knew her husband wasn’t dead.
The rush of elation and deepest sorrow almost unmade her—and oh, how sweetly the earth whispered to her, tempted her—but she snatched the fraying edges of herself and ran. She had always been long-legged, but now her steps ate up the ground in the weightless bounds of a doe. She passed children playing unattended on their stoops and laundry hung out to dry, absorbing the hot stink of coal smoke. Then she was outside the school, a sagging clapboard rectangle at the edge of the white neighborhood. Children poured down the steps.
Vesta held Effie’s hand in hers and did not look left or right. Isa fell in beside them, reaching reflexively to straighten their stiff collars and tuck away stray hairs before she stopped herself.
“Vesta and Persephone Bell?” The voice was clipped and northern. A white woman in a brown khaki dress stood in front of the girls. Everything from her square handbag to her narrow eyes said she had the authority of state behind her. Vesta regarded her with a flat, unimpressed stare which, if she hadn’t been fifteen years old, would have sliced right through the woman.
She only readjusted her round glasses. “Your parents were Leslie and Isa Bell, residents of Turner Station on Sparrows Point?” The past tense jarred Isa, but Vesta nodded.
“I’m Mrs. Patterson. I’m here to speak with you about your future now that your parents are at rest. Would you both please step back inside—”
Effie interrupted in a dangerous, chirpy tone that Isa knew very well. “Oh, Momma and Daddy aren’t resting anywhere, Miss Patty. Both their bodies got burned right up.” The woman blinked. “Well, we don’t know about Daddy—they said he was missing after a air raid. But Momma died cleaning the dust out from under the blast furnace. Couple hundred pounds of red-hot dust came down on her—poof. We didn’t get her body neither.”
Isa felt a sudden depth of sympathy for the state worker, whose mouth had fallen slightly open. In a certain mood, Effie could provoke preachers to cuss and sweet-natured dogs to bite. The woman gathered herself, and ushered Vesta and Effie back up the steps into the school. Isa drifted after them, a worried shadow in blue cotton.
The trio arranged themselves around a teacher’s boxy metal desk. The state worker explained to the girls that it had taken a while for their situation to become clear to the office, because their mother’s death wasn’t reported in a timely fashion. But they were legally orphans and couldn’t continue living on their own in company housing. They would come with her into the city to live as wards of the state. As a younger girl, Effie would be sent to St. Mary’s—
“Ma’am, it seems to me that some of your facts are wrong.” Vesta’s tone was mature, cool. “I turned eighteen in March, and I’m Effie’s next of kin, so we don’t need to go anywhere.” Vesta was tall and broad-shouldered like her mother, and a few hungry years in her childhood had taken the roundness out of her face and limbs. She passed easily for eighteen.
The woman squinted at her, and ruffled through her folders. “I’m quite sure we have your correct age down in our records, Miss Bell. And since when do eighteen-year-olds go to school?”
“Well, I never had a birth certificate because Momma had me at home on the kitchen floor. So I don’t know that you do have my correct age down in your records, unless you were in Pulaski County Kentucky in 1926.” Isa rested her insubstantial hand on Vesta’s shoulder. Vesta sat even straighter. “And I got held back in school. I didn’t learn real well.” Clever Vesta. It was never hard to convince white folk that you were stupid.
“Well.” Mrs. Patterson’s ruffling continued, increasingly random. “Well, that doesn’t mean you get to keep living in worker housing, does it? That’s for workers, isn’t it Miss Bell?”
“Yes, ma’am. I work at the mill four nights a week, sorting scrap.” The lies tripped off her tongue with military precision. “Now, I thank you kindly for your time this evening, Mrs. Patterson, but I’ve got to get home and start supper.” Vesta pulled Effie with her out the door and left Mrs. Patterson and her folders in the empty classroom.
It was hard, that night, for Isa to keep herself from spooling away. Leslie would come home soon and take care of their girls, and she was so very tired. But the grim line of Vesta’s jaw as she stalked out of the school and the stubborn way she held Effie’s hand kept Isa rooted, waiting. She made restless circles through the house, trailing her fingers across familiar objects, almost dissolving into the delicious warp and weft of Leslie’s favorite shirt folded on the dresser.
Vesta got out of bed when the whistle blew for the end of third shift. Effie curled into the warm place she left. Vesta pulled on her mother’s coveralls still stiff with grime and buttoned the collar below her chin. They were big on her, but not very. She tied a faded yellow kerchief around her head, scribbled a note on an old envelope, and left. Vesta paused to pet the cat curled on the stoop, but his eyes followed Isa’s spectral shadow hovering behind her. Vesta frowned over her shoulder, but saw nothing.
A sound had begun in Isa’s head like a claxon or a scream. She no longer had a pulse, but it beat in her temples as she followed Vesta along the rutted road to the mill. She joined the stream of workers pouring towards the punch clocks and pushed with them against the third shifters still trickling out. Isa was nothing but a chill along their backs and a flash of despair.
Vesta found the foreman’s office and slid inside.
“You’re Isa Bell’s oldest, aren’t you?” He was unsurprised. “What can I do for you?” His eyes sketched the strong outline of Vesta’s shoulders with something like greed. Isa stepped between him and her daughter. Neither of them noticed.
“Mr. Everton, I’d like to take my Momma’s place in the mill. If it’s open.”
“Well now, it might be. But not for anybody scared of hard work, or girls who can’t tough it out. We make steel, here, and steel is war.” There was something unshakable in his voice that reminded Isa of the preacher back home, except the foreman’s gods were profit and progress and the roar of the ceaseless mill.
“No little girls here, Mr. Everton. I’ll work.” He told her to show up for second shift and talk to a woman with a crippled arm on the main floor. Vesta left, while Isa’s ghost ripped through the foreman’s office like a furious, feeble tornado. A few papers fluttered gently off his desk. In a last flash of futile hate, she ran her hands over his stash of canned sardines and chocolate bars. They rotted in their wrappings.
This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.
Rage no longer possessed Isa, but perched heavily on her shoulder like a red-eyed crow. Plenty of young girls went to work when their fathers were at war and their mothers were dead or sick or busy drinking and trying to remember why they’d ever come to this terrible yellow-gray town on the bay. Plenty of girls did it, but not Vesta. Not Vesta, who had read her mother’s copy of Metamorphoses in fourth grade and whispered the stories to her sister beneath their quilts. Not Vesta, who cried when her father took the smaller portion of beans and gave her the last of the milk. Every woman in the mill was somebody’s child, but Vesta was Isa’s child.
Isa would be damned if any child of hers would work in that mill. When Leslie came home, he’d find his two daughters whole and healthy and still in school, unscarred by the spatter of welders or the slower poisons of gas and steam. That was the reason for all of it.
Why else had Leslie and Isa gone to war with the world, trading away muscle and blood and the late-summer smell of tobacco curing in the barn—if not for their daughters? Hate and fear sent some people to the front lines and blast furnaces, but love sent far more.
The dirt had been waiting for Isa for a long while now, and it was growing impatient. It sang her songs about moss and loam and the sweetness of falling apart.
But Isa was listening for a different song, a song that groaned and grated in a thousand iron voices about never-ending shifts and coal trains that never stopped coming. She knew it very well, had heard it waking and sleeping since she left her home in Kentucky. It was the steel mill’s song, and Isa leaned into it. She pretended it was the good earth she sank into instead of a city of machines. She let herself fray and slip away, remembering the way her hand sank into the parlor stove. The blue cotton dress tattered and her long legs grew thin and faint and then she was nothing at all.
When she opened her eyes, she was the steel mill at Sparrows Point.
Her blood vessels were railways pumping coke and scrap. Her skull was made of brick offices and punch clocks, her lungs were heaving combustion stoves, her bones were ore. Her heart was Betty, beating and burning at the center of the machine, and across her skin, in every organ, ten thousand men and women toiled. Every skittering spark from every welder permeated her. Mary leaned against her on lunch break, struggling one-handed to unsnap her apron. The foreman clomped amongst the women in his heavy boots.
All ghosts operate under the same set of laws: They have a short time to exist, a voice that can’t be heard, and an uncompromising terminus. Much the same as the living. But laws last precisely as long as people follow them, and not a second longer. Every now and then, out of desperation or desire or pure mule-headedness, somebody stops following them. So Isa Bell didn’t go down into the clay and minerals beneath her feet. She became a steel mill.
Amid the grinding and roaring vastness of her body, there wasn’t much left of Isa-the-woman or Isa-the-mother. But there was just enough that she worried for the ten thousand people inside her, working in the soot and steam for their families. They would never leave, because Isa-the-mill was a city that never truly slept, a city that required an army of men and women every hour of every day, an unceasing thing.
So, Isa-the-mill ceased. She had died once before, and was familiar with the seizing of organs and limbs required. All the hundreds and hundreds of motions of the mill stopped. Trains drifted to a halt in the middle of their lines with their engines gone cold and black. Molten slag ceased to flow from the casting holes and orange-hot metal turned dull and ashen in its vats. Crane loads of scrap hung suspended in the air as though they’d forgotten where they were headed.
People boiled out of her like ants from a nest. At first they shouted and swore, mostly at each other, but then a fearful bafflement settled over them. Cautiously they tried to rekindle fires and flipped switches on and off, but Isa stayed still and dark. It didn’t take very long before the company became aware that it was paying a smallish city of people to stand and stare. Everyone was crushed through the punch clock and sent home with instructions to listen for the whistle. While the foremen called their bosses and the bosses called in experts, Isa became the ghost-town of a mill.
She was tired the way only a ghost who has stayed too long is tired, and forgetting herself in the smell of coal and iron. But Isa remained a woman who got on with things, and knew if she simply drifted away the mill would reopen in a week with an apology to the Defense Department for missing their projected quota. Isa wanted it to never open again, even if it put her neighbors out of work, even if their families suffered long, hungry nights. Even if Sparrows Point fell into rot and decay without its mill.
And so she tore herself apart, bolt by bolt. She began delicately: Support beams cracked, welds fractured, mortar grew weak and powdery, as though the mill were failing a dozen safety inspections all at once. Then she gained momentum. Vats and stoves burst and poured out their lavas of molten tin and aluminum and pig iron. Fires caught in perfect synchrony across her body and she blew out her coal-dust breath to make them higher, hotter. Isa made of herself a grand pyre, for Mary and every man and woman swallowed whole since the first flame caught in the first engine.
At the very last, while the heat turned her body to slag and ash, she burst her own heart. Betty the blast furnace poured herself out in a cloud of blue sparks and poisonous gas. Isa hoped Vesta and Effie saw the orange glow as they sat together on the stoop, and knew their mother loved them.
Isa wasn’t anything, after that. She slept in her own ashes and hardly heard the boot-steps over her or the muttering of engineers and contractors that came to rebuild her only to find that the project was too expensive and none of their survey stakes stayed where they left them. Eventually they left her alone to rust. No one visited her except aimless children who picked through her for treasures (goggles with cracked lenses, a thousand scraps of metal warped in fantastical shapes, a burnt-black heart that might have been a locket), and sometimes an ugly cat who liked to lie on her sun-warmed iron. Mostly she rested, as weeds grew up through her bones and mice made homes in her skin.
And then one day, the faint reverberation of a footstep she knew as well as she knew her own heart rumbled through her skeleton.
With a groan of wind over an abandoned field, she woke up. Leslie limped through the knee-high ragweed, her husband home from war and looking for his wife without knowing he was looking. He wasn’t the way she remembered—war had sapped the humor from his face and mapped unkind lines around his mouth—but he was whole.
All the thistles and dandelions growing up through Isa bloomed at once, out of season, in a riotous bouquet. They turned their mauve and gold faces towards Leslie, beckoning.
He smiled the shadow of his crescent-moon grin. “You always were stubborn, Isa.”
Smoke and grief roughened his voice. He told Isa about their girls and how tall and smart they both were, and the job he had directing ships on the bay. He told her about the war, and how men died without a bullet ever coming close to them and then came home and walked around just like live people. He told her about the telegram printed on cheap paper he read in a French hospital bed that told him his wife was dead. And how he had still expected to see her, somehow, when he came home.
Then he sat down in the flowers and put his face in his hands and wept. Isa sipped the delicate salt of his tears through her dandelion petals. She thought some of it was for the loss of her, but mostly it was for himself, facing the endless labor of going on. She watched the tiny muscles moving across the backs of his large hands. She’d always loved his hands.
She began to unwind herself from the taproots and tangled wires that pierced her. It was hard work. It was baling hay all day after a long night up with the baby and no hope of sleep the next night. It was a double shift on an empty belly. But she’d never shied away from work. With the very last of her strength she pulled herself into a single shape.
She became again that moment when she was most alive, in the sweet green of a tobacco field in August. She’d straightened up from slicing the stalks and shaded her eyes and seen Leslie for the very first time, drawn by the early-evening sun like some ancient idol made of muscle and sweat and white teeth flashing. It wasn’t falling in love so much as falling into place, perfectly, and seeing the whole future in the shape of his shoulders and knowing it was full of hurt but knowing too that it was worth it.
For a stolen second so small that time might not notice its pockets were lighter, Leslie saw her as she had been in that field seventeen years ago. Young and broad-shouldered and taller than him, wearing a blue cotton dress stained with sweat.
Isa kissed him once, or perhaps a salty breeze blew across his cheek, and she was gone.
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.