Elizabeth Barrett Browning wakes up again. It’s the third time today. She thinks awakenings are far more common in springtime, but all year long she is called this way. She sighs and tucks her dark hair back under her cap. She will not refuse the call.
The afterlife is not as she imagined it. The throne of the Almighty is nowhere to be found, and no creature great or small has asked her to account for her good works or confess her sins. She simply arrived one day and met a woman with dark eyes and excellent manners, who showed her to this restful place, sometimes like a nice rooming house, other times like a torchlit catacomb, and told to sleep. The rooms are small but pleasant. It is always warm and smells of lavender or apples. And it always seems to be twilight, or perhaps just before dawn.
So she must light a candle. There is no pain here; it does not concern her much that she cannot see her way. If she stubs her toe or barks her shins, it would scarcely matter. But she hates to awaken anyone who has not been called. Some of the people who sleep around her—men, mostly—are terribly vexed when awakened and not fed. Horace Walpole—poor fellow—hasn’t had a bite in years. Anytime someone makes a sound near him, he jumps right up, excited as a child at Christmas. Then he lies back down, as disappointed as if that same child had received no gifts at all, whilst everyone else is merrily opening theirs.
As Elizabeth walks down the hallway, she can feel herself smiling automatically as Virginia Woolf comes into view. Virginia is always popular, and she has such a sprightly way about her for a suicide.
“Good morning, Virginia,” Elizabeth says. For it is always morning when you awaken, no matter the hour. And there are no hours here.
Virginia smiles back, reaches out and takes Elizabeth’s hand. “I’ve not seen you up in days!”
Elizabeth inclines her head, looking up knowingly. It seems to her that they are beneath the world rather than above it. They have no view; it is impossible to tell. “It’s springtime up there. I think it is easier for them to find me at this time of year. And who called for you?”
Virginia sighs. “A lovely girl. Scarce fifteen. She’s in love for the first time and only just knows it.”
“Mrs. Dalloway,” Elizabeth says, not really asking. She is being polite. This is always the answer.
“Orlando,” Virginia says, her smile widening. Elizabeth could swear she is glowing. “More and more, the calls are coming because of Orlando.”
Elizabeth smiles back. She does not know how long she has been in the catacomb, nor how the library here works. She only knows that she has read every book ever written. When she meets an author in the hall, she has perfect recall of their entire oeuvre, and they of hers. They know one another in the most comfortably intimate way. The woman who welcomes everyone on the day they die designed it this way. She is Murasaki Shikibu, and Elizabeth sees her always with an inked brush in her mouth, working, working. Shikibu knows everyone this intimately. She knows what every writer wants when they die.
Elizabeth thinks that some of the writers know each other better still. She has seen Anaïs Nin in Sappho’s doorway more than once. She has heard that such things are only possible for authors whose works touch in the world above. Perhaps that is true. Enough poets have come to her door that she imagines they must touch her words often, but she always sends them away. Robert has never once shown his face, and she does not care to know if he’s in these halls somewhere. She sleeps best when she sleeps alone.
She reaches her window, which is only hers. It is near a few others, and she does look around a bit and see who else is awake. There’s Christina Rossetti, reclining at the glass, winding a lock of her hair around her finger, enchanted by whatever she sees there. Elizabeth can see through no one else’s window, and no one may see through hers. That suits her. There’s Amiri Baraka, who always seems to be moving in time, as if he dances to music that no other may hear. There’s Juana Inés de la Cruz, free at last of her habit and sweeping around in crimson robes and a crown as she stands hungrily at her own window and takes and takes from whatever is given her. Elizabeth thinks of it as eating or drinking, but she knows that it not how it is for everyone. Some of them say it is like music, and others describe it as the act of love. Watching each at their glass, she can only guess at how they feel what they feel.
When she reaches her own window, she sees a familiar sight. It is always one of two things: a youth with a schoolbook or a grown person standing in the British Library before a glass case. In the case, they keep a foolscap original of Elizabeth’s poem that asks “How do I love thee?” And then offers to count the ways.
It is perhaps the most parodied and mocked love poem of all time, but such things do not call Elizabeth from her sleep. There is only one thing that wakes the writers who roam these halls, and that is rapture.
There is a young man peering through the glass. He can’t make out the words at first, and even now Elizabeth cringes at the thought of her penmanship. I was only drafting, she thinks. How could I know that centuries of onlookers would see my strikethrough lines, my shaking hand? How can I tell them it was the laudanum as much as the pangs of love which made me quake so?
But he is reading it, or she wouldn’t be here. He is reading it and his heart is swelling beyond its bounds. He is reading it and it is filling him with a longing so sharp that he resents it for puncturing the evenness of his day playing tourist. He came to this place expecting to be moved by Beowulf, and he wouldn’t be the first. That author, that hulking fellow, had breezed past Elizabeth more times than she liked to count. He had the look of an angry bear about him.
The young man is unmoved by the bear-man’s poem. He has come here with a terrible emptiness in his heart. It bleeds out of him now, and into Elizabeth. She feels no pain of her own, but when it is the precursor of the rapture of a reader, she feels it most sharply. It is the hunger before she is fed. (Pangs are only felt in hunger, guilt, and love.)
He is moved, instead, by a poem he knew first as a joke. As a litany recited by cartoon rabbits and snide antagonists who mock anyone who dares to show their heart. It comes over him the way a man is taken by sickness and he must step out of the gallery, into the corridor, to try and compose himself. He is weeping as though his heart is broken.
But it is not, or Elizabeth would not be here.
His love is not with him, but she is not gone from him. Not completely. He takes his own small, rectangular glass from his pocket and writes to his lady.
Ah, Elizabeth sighs. Would that they had such when I was young. When I think of how I pined for months for a letter. But no matter. Here it comes.
He finds it. Not her skiff of scribble, but a clear and even printing from which he may copy.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee to the level of every day’s Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
He hits send.
Somewhere, in another part of the world, his love awakens. Her life is still in the world where pain is real and the sun still rises and sets. The stab of longing is shared between the two of them, and then between the three. It lands in Elizabeth’s chest, beating her heart once more. The lady above copies as well, and Elizabeth says the words along with her, lips moving as one as when the congregation is joined in prayer.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.
And doesn’t she? Doesn’t she love them better than she ever could, seeing them crying for one another, split across oceans and without hope of anything beyond these words— her words!— that they share? Is not her love now a thing that could encompass all the world? She cries with them. She always does. She never loved anything so well in life. Of course she awakens for this. A thousand times, across a thousand centuries. If anything lasts so long.
When the rapture has faded and she is well-fed, Elizabeth rises from her place. It seems to her she has been sitting before a fire in a very comfortable chair, or else taking a sunlit stroll on a spring day that was warm but never taxing. When the bees could be heard but not felt. She stretches lightly, ready for bed again. For as long as she may rest. Until she is called once more.
Through the hall of glasses, she makes her way, only a little curious now about who is awake at this hour (for it seems very late indeed). But she comes to one corner that she knows is never empty, and she smiles, for he is not alone this night.
Disheveled and devilishly handsome, William Shakespeare sits with his chin in his hand, sighing at the glass before him. It never tires him and he is never tired. His bed hasn’t been touched in years. No matter how frequently Elizabeth rises, she sees him always here. He is happier than any of them, radiating contentment like a hot brick tucked between quilts, his reflection always smiling to his fellows over his shoulder.
And his free hand reaches out to his left, where Walt Whitman sits. He clasps William’s hand in his and grins broadly at his glass. His rapture is as pure as a child’s; if his hands were free he would clap them with delight. But he does not take his hand from William’s.
Elizabeth tucks her body closer to the wall, silent as the grave, and watches them just a little longer. It isn’t rapture, but it makes her smile as Virginia did. As any awoken author will.
William pulls Walt’s hand nearer to him and kisses it tenderly. He pulls him closer, wrapping an arm around his waist.
“I hope they never let us sleep,” William says. “I always knew I would be immortal.”
Whitman nods. “I always knew I was a god.”
Elizabeth turns to leave them without saying a word and nearly runs into Oscar Wilde. He smiles at her as he passes. “Well, if it isn’t one of my lost saints. Good morning, Elizabeth.”
She smiles back. “Goodnight, Oscar.”
Wilde slips in beside Whitman, wrapping a long arm around the two men. The three of them glow like embers in a fire that never goes out.
Elizabeth does not know if they are immortals, and she cannot believe they are gods. She does not think herself a saint, lost or otherwise. No one promised her the lifespan of her ink, and now that she is called by people carrying ink that never fades, she does not know if even that matters anymore.
She sneaks past the sleepers in rooms around her and does not envy them their unbroken rest. She cannot wait until she is awoken again by lovers who find her and bring rapture to her words. She loves them so much better after death. She cannot count the ways.
Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. Her second novel was up for the Philip K. Dick, and both were longlisted for the James A. Tiptree award. She has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Catapult, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Find her online, where she writes like she’s running out of time.
They say she lives somewhere down in the Avenues south of Eagle Rock. She is a tiny thing, short and round. Always dressed in black no matter the weather or time of year. Draped in mourning, they say, like La Llorona. Black wool dress, black coat, black shawl. A black veil that falls like a cobweb over her ancient face. Ask the abuelas in the park and they will tell you they remember her from when they were young, and that she was an old woman even then.
You can spot her from a mile away, carrying that odd little dollhouse of hers. You know the one: it looks homemade, simple and boxy, with a peaked roof and a handle at the top. It is painted in bright candy colors, as cheerful as she is somber: lemon yellow and valentine pink, mint green and robin’s-egg blue. There are those who say the house was made for La Bruja by her father, or perhaps even her grandfather, and that they each bore it for many long years before her. But there is no one alive today who can answer for sure.
Go talk to the vatos who hang out behind the pool hall, the dark-eyed boys with grease under their fingernails and tattoos on their knuckles, and ask them about La Bruja. They will tell you she loves nothing better than to sneak into children’s rooms at night and steal their hearts. She comes while you are sleeping and never makes a sound or leaves a mark. You won’t even know it happened. You’ll just wake up in the morning feeling strangely numb and hollow. You will walk around blank-eyed and shivering, with no notion of what ails you, until you drop dead at the stroke of noon. Later, when they cut you open at the hospital, they will see that your heart is missing and find a smooth, round stone in its place.
They say La Bruja carries the hearts around in that crazy little house of hers, ready to eat at her leisure, like ripe, juicy apples.
But it’s all a lie. Those boys are only trying to scare you.
Everyone knows the house is for the ghosts.
It’s late August in L.A. The last mean stretch of a summer that feels like it will never end. Everywhere are brown lawns and shimmering stretches of black asphalt. Posters and billboards show angry red thermometers reminding you not to waste water. No sprinklers to run through. No inflatable pools to laze in. For children, August is doubly cruel. Too hot to do anything fun, too close to the new school year to waste a single day in idleness.
In the heat of the afternoon, La Bruja beetles her way along York Boulevard. The children outside the corner store shout “Bruja! Bruja!” and drop their Popsicles and soda cans on the sidewalk. They sprint for their bikes and race down the alleyway, daring to look back only when they are blocks away. There is no point, after all, in taking chances or pretending to be brave. If she were to lift her veil, La Bruja could freeze you to the spot with a single glance. You’ll stand there, stone still, until a perfect stranger walks around you three times, counter-clockwise, and says “wake up, wake up, fly away home.” If you are careless enough to let your shadow cross hers, she can snatch it in her hand and claim your soul. She’ll slip into your dreams at night and make herself at home, rummaging through your memories, your fears, your guiltiest secrets. Once she’s there you can never make her leave, no matter how many candles you light at St. Dominic’s or how many Hail Marys you say. That’s a simple fact. Everyone says so.
At the bus stop on York, La Bruja sits waiting, dollhouse at her side. She tosses a handful of sunflower seeds onto the sidewalk in front of her and makes a rhythmic “chk-chk-chk” sound with her tongue. It is less than a minute before the crows come. They descend by the dozens, squawking and flapping. They peck madly at the seeds and then perch silently on the seat beside the old woman, and along the backrest of the bench, until the whole thing is camouflaged in night.
When the bus comes, La Bruja steps aboard. The driver never charges her and she never bothers to ring the bell to call for her stop. The other riders get up so that she may sit in the frontmost seat all by herself. As the bus heads west and turns right onto Eagle Rock Boulevard, the noisy dark cloud of birds follows close behind.
No one knows exactly how La Bruja manages to conduct her business or knows when to show up for her appointments. She doesn’t have a calling card or advertise her services on bus benches. She’s never owned a telephone. But she always knows when she is needed. When you get desperate enough, frightened enough, you will find a way to contact her. Some say it is the crows who carry her messages for her. Others say you must approach her in your dreams and ask her for her help. If she agrees to help you, you will find a simple message—unsigned, unstamped, no envelope—somewhere in your home. In a kitchen cabinet behind the cereal boxes, perhaps, or tucked under your pillow.
But everyone agrees on this: You must take care to follow her instructions precisely. If you do not, she’ll turn right around and go home, and you’ll find yourself in the same dark place you started.
The house is to be completely empty. Take the pets if you have any.
Place the money in a plain envelope, along with the house key, and leave it under the mat. You’ll know how much to pay—after all, how much is it worth to you to live safely and peacefully in your own home? If it’s not enough, she will turn around and go home and you will never hear from her again.
Do not come home until after sunset on the third day. This is most important.
It takes three buses today to get her to the desired neighborhood, and another twenty minutes of slow, steady walking to reach the house itself. It is on a clean, shady street high up in the foothills, so high that the smog doesn’t reach and the sky is a bright, endless curtain of blue. The lawns are all green and neatly manicured, and the swimming pools are full and crystal clear. Everyone knows the rich can afford to be wasteful.
La Bruja doesn’t need to check the house numbers to know which is her destination. The crows have already marked it. She finds them perched on the mailbox, standing sentry on the crest of the roof and along the telephone wires. They strut up and down the sidewalk, across the front lawn, and gather squawking below the eaves. La Bruja looks under the mat and finds the envelope. Inside is a stack of crisp bills and the house key. She unlocks the door and crosses the threshold, but doesn’t bother to count the money.
It is getting late and she has work to do.
If the time ever comes to buy a house, be sure to ask if it is haunted. A house with a ghost is a far worse bargain than one with termites or dry rot or bad plumbing, and much trickier to make whole again.
This particular house is grand and tacky, built in a style the architect imagined to be vaguely Spanish. Clay tiles on the roof, pinkish-beige stucco walls and lots of large, arched windows that look out on palm trees and sprawling bougainvillea. A vague chemical scent greets La Bruja as she steps inside, a blend of lilac air freshener and pine-scented disinfectant.
“Chk-chk-chk,” she beckons as she moves through the entry and into the living room. The home is immaculately clean; you’d scarce believe anyone lived here at all. Everything looks expensive and uncomfortable. Lots of heavy glass and wrought iron. Lots of hard surfaces. No comfy armchairs to fall into, no plump ottoman to rest your feet on.
She sets her little dollhouse down on the glass coffee table and looks around.
The back of the house is all glass: floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors that open out onto a tiled courtyard and swimming pool. La Bruja moves slowly towards the glass wall, taking tiny, careful steps. Mustn’t scare anyone.
She can smell chlorine and chewing gum now, and the faintest hint of cheap, stale beer. Her eyes shift back and forth behind the veil, scanning the room carefully. It is a few minutes before she finds what she is looking for: a set of faint, wet footprints on the polished wood floors, glistening in the late-day sun. They are rather small and shimmer slightly at their edges. Right away she guesses that this ghost is fairly old, even if the child itself was young. Children are surely the saddest part of her job, but in many ways they are the easiest. They don’t seek lost loves or plot vengeance. They just get lost easily and need someone to guide them homeward.
La Bruja steps out into the courtyard. She settles into a boxy rattan deck chair and keeps perfectly still. And she watches. From time to time, the little shimmering footprints pace away from the pool, then return. They move from this corner to that one, into the house and then back out again. Like a mouse in a glass cage that doesn’t understand why it can’t escape. She sits without moving a finger or uttering a word. She waits unmoving until the sun drops below the mountains, the first moment of twilight. Then she lifts the veil from her eyes.
The world swims and shimmers before her. Everything seems strange and distorted, like a television viewed through a fish tank. At first it is difficult to understand what she’s looking at. Echoes… memories… past… present… all competing for attention. But soon her eyes adjust and she can see things clearly. She can see exactly what happened.
There are four of them, three boys and a girl, gathered around the pool. It’s the late afternoon of a summer day not much different from this one. The youngest is a blond boy, skinny and tan, who looks to be eleven or twelve. He wears blue swim trunks and a red-white-and-blue tank top emblazoned with “USA ’76.” The other two boys look to be fourteen or so. The taller one is slightly awkward, still unused to his growing limbs. The smaller one is wild and wiry, with long dark hair and lots of coiled energy.
The girl is also fourteen but looks considerably older than her peers, the way teen girls often do. She is wearing cut-off jeans and a macramé bikini top. She is pretty and she knows it, more’s the pity. She is well aware of the strange power she has recently acquired, even if she doesn’t fully understand it. It’s the power to make boys stumble over their words just by looking at them. To make them do stupid, risky things to impress her, like shoplifting cigarettes or breaking into empty homes. She knows for certain it is a power she didn’t have last summer, and she already suspects it will not last long.
The home doesn’t belong to any of them. The tall boy knows this house because it is on his paper route, knows that the owners will be out of town till Monday. It was easy enough to sneak down the side yard to the swimming pool at the back. The four of them splash and swim in the summer heat. They have a cannonball contest to see who can make the biggest, loudest splash. The girl declares the wild boy to be the winner and the tall boy demands a rematch. They listen to music on a tinny transistor radio and take shallow, unconvincing puffs on cigarettes, trying hard to look cool and dangerous.
As evening approaches, they luxuriate in the borrowed sense of freedom they’re all sharing, imagining this must be what it feels like to be grown up, having no rules to obey, no one to answer to.
Once darkness falls, the wild boy gets the idea of prying open a window and raiding the kitchen. In his absence, the tall boy stretches out on a chaise longue and recites a string of filthy jokes he learned from some comedy record. The girl rolls her eyes and takes a slow drag on her cigarette, pretending she is too mature for such things. The blond boy laughs loudly, even though he’s not exactly sure what all the words mean.
The wild boy returns with a bag of tortilla chips, a six pack of cold soda and another of warm beer. They all pretend that beer is their customary first choice, even the blond boy. He quits after less than one can. At first the beer makes them all relax, floating on a mellow buzz, but then it makes them rowdy. The girl has finished her first beer and is pestering the wild boy for some of his.
Suddenly everything slows and the smallest details come into sharp focus. La Bruja’s attention is drawn to the little radio sitting on the patio table. It is blaring some silly gringo rock song, some nonsense about the “Fox on the Run.” The girl, splashing manically in the shallow end, yells to turn it up. The tall boy drains the last of his second beer and fumbles to light a cigarette. The blond boy is on the diving board and shouts to the others, “Look at me!” He attempts to do a front flip off the board, but in the failing light he misjudges the distance. La Bruja hears a crack—loud as the day it happened—as the back of the boy’s head strikes the edge of the diving board. It is a clean blow, like being struck by a baseball bat.
Already the boy is sinking to the bottom, already blood spreads like a plume of ruby smoke, staining the clear blue water. In that instant, the teens all drop their shallow veneer of adulthood, reverting back to the children they are, scared and helpless. They don’t discuss a plan. They don’t say anything at all. They don’t even look at each other.
They just run.
They run all the way home. They say nothing and try desperately to think of nothing, choking back the terror and the tears until they are each safe in their beds where they will sob all night into their pillows and wake in the morning wishing it was all a horrible dream. Not one of them ever says anything about the boy. Each is sure the others will do the right thing, the brave thing, and tell their parents or phone the police.
A week later, at the blond boy’s funeral, they don’t even acknowledge one another. The body, they are told, floated in the pool for at least two days before the homeowners returned. By that time, the water was as red as the sun and the corpse was so bleached and bloated it was difficult to identify. Although they share classes and sports teams all through high school, the three of them never say another word to each other or willingly glance in the others’ direction.
Those three children will all be grown up by now, and parents themselves. Perhaps grandparents. But none of them will ever see a single day pass without thinking of their young friend. About the things they did, and the things they didn’t do. They’ll carry that memory around with them forever, dragging it like a ball and chain. It follows them to school, to work, to Christmas parties, on honeymoons and vacations. It’s with them at the grocery store, at the movie theater and at their children’s school plays. Each of them is every bit as haunted by the past as this house is. But there is no sure remedy for their curse. They will bear its burden until the day they die. Only then will they be in a position to ask forgiveness, even though they don’t honestly expect to receive any.
Looking closer, La Bruja can see that traces of blood still linger in this pool. You can’t miss it once you know to look for it. Let your eyes soften and look below the surface. Pints of blood. Buckets of it. Vast oceans of blood, churning and roiling in the moonlight. No matter how many times it has been drained and refilled, no matter how many gallons of chlorine have been poured in over the passing decades, it is still tainted, still infected.
Some blood, you must surely know, never washes away.
It’s well past dark by the time La Bruja begins her working. To start, she removes a number of items from the pockets of her coat and from the leather bolsa she wears around her neck. She takes three votive candles and places one each along three sides of the swimming pool. She lights the first candle and blesses it in the name of San Jeronimo, patron saint of abandoned children. The second she lights in the name of San Alejo, who looks after those who are imprisoned. The third is for San Cristobal, patron saint of travelers. Now she takes a larger candle and sets it at the far end of the pool, the end with the diving board. This last candle is for blessed Madre María, who watches mercifully over all of us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
La Bruja stands over the pool and begins to chant in an odd sing-song voice. She takes a small crystal vial and removes its silver cap. It contains holy water, again blessed in the name of the virgin Santa María. She sprinkles it over the surface of the water and counts slowly to nine. Then, she takes a golden sewing needle and pricks her own ring finger. Three perfect crimson drops fall into the pool. They mottle the surface for a moment, but are quickly diluted and subsumed, and the water appears clear as glass.
Blood for blood. No fairer trade.
The second part of the working requires no blood, but it does require patience. She takes eleven tea candles, one for each year of the boy’s short life, and spaces them in an arcing trail from the pool, through the French doors, and into living room. Once each is lit, she sets the dollhouse on the floor in front of the last candle, the one furthest from the swimming pool. She squats on the floor next to it and waits.
“Chk-chk-chk,” she intones, tapping the wood floor with her finger nails.
After a few minutes the first tea light goes out, sending a little gray wisp of smoke trailing in the air.
The second candle goes out a few minutes later. Then the third. But the fourth candle lingers. Its flame flickers from time to time, but it does not extinguish. La Bruja is patient. She knows the boy must take each step in his own time, cross each threshold and close each invisible door behind him. This is his path to walk and he cannot be rushed.
It is more than an hour before the fourth candle finally goes out. But it is quickly followed by the fifth. And the sixth.
The little house is hinged at one gable end, and there is a bright pink padlock in the shape of a heart at the other. As the ninth candle goes out, La Bruja takes a key from around her neck and unlocks the padlock, but leaves it dangling in place.
Again the procession stalls. It is nearly another hour before the tenth candle dims and dies. Very carefully, very slowly, La Bruja removes the padlock and opens the front of the house just a crack.
The eleventh candle fades slowly… slowly… and then grows. It grows brighter and brighter until at last, with a blinding flash, it goes out. La Bruja quickly shuts the dollhouse and snaps the lock in place.
It is too late now to catch a bus back to the Avenues, so La Bruja will sleep here tonight. She will help herself to cold beer and whatever palatable thing she can find in the fridge to eat. In the morning she will rise early and burn a wand of sage leaves and smudge all the rooms in the house. She will throw wide the curtains, open up all the windows and leave the front door wide open.
She will place the key back under the mat, gather her things and head back down the hill.
In La Casa de Fantasmas, there are many mansions.
True, there are only four windows on the exterior of the little house and those are merely painted on. But inside there are countless doors and windows. There are cozy libraries, suffocating closets and tight, bricked-up tunnels. There are comfortable rooms with en suite bathrooms. There are endless dim corridors to wander down, lost in romantic torment, if that is your preference. The dollhouse is small, but the spirits take up so little space. Even La Bruja has lost count of how many ghosts presently dwell inside. But there is plenty of room for all of them.
You must know that ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. For some it is the trauma of a violent death. For others it is love for the ones they left behind. For a great many it is guilt: Guilt for letting down their family, for not making more of their lives, for all the wicked things they may have done but still can’t bring themselves to truly regret. Guilt is a great anchor that holds spirits earthbound.
Still, most spirits don’t move on because they simply aren’t ready. They haven’t said their piece or made their mark or danced one last dance. But all have one thing in common: They hate to be reminded they are ghosts.
At the front of the house is the large salon, where the walls are lined with bookshelves and heavy chandeliers hang from the wood-beamed ceiling. It is one of the oldest rooms. A wood fire burns in a stone fireplace, and there are leather sofas and armchairs nestled around well-worn Persian carpets. The more gregarious of the guests gather here, to swap stories or gossip, to play chess or try to cheat one another at cards.
Standing by the fireplace, puffing on a cigarillo, is the one they call the Fox, an over-the-hill gentleman with a watch fob in his waistcoat, Cuban heels on his shoes, and a ludicrous beard he keeps waxed and styled like a cartoon devil. He loves to dance the tango and the tarantella, and pesters all the ladies until one of them acquiesces.
The Irish Tinker scrapes out a Romani ballad on his fiddle while Sister Agnes plays a game of backgammon with the Quiet Man. The Doctor watches from a corner. He sits sipping brandy, his smooth bald head hovering over the pages of a Thomas Mann novel he’s never managed to finish. He mutters under his breath how one day they will all be sorry. One day, they will regret underestimating him.
Darla sits by the front door waiting for her gentleman caller. She is wearing her best dress, the one the color of summer apricots. She can’t help but worry. There are no clocks in the house, but surely he should have been here by now. If you asked her, Darla couldn’t tell you the gentleman’s name or how they met. But she knows he is a kind, handsome man and knows in her heart that they are truly made for each other.
Her mother never approved of gentleman callers. Darla doesn’t care to divulge her age, but her mother was quite fond of reminding her that if a woman hasn’t hooked a man by this stage of the game, she had best give up the ghost. Better an old maid than an old floozy. The minutes pass and Darla grows certain that something bad must have happened. An accident or an emergency. Or maybe he just decided he doesn’t want to see her. She tries to hold back the tears, but it isn’t long before her mascara runs in black rivulets down her cheeks.
She gets up and checks herself in the mirror. She looks a fright. You’re such a silly thing, Darla. Always letting your imagination get carried away, always making things a bigger deal than they really are. Take a deep breath. Stand up straight. Think good thoughts, and good things will happen to you. She dries her eyes, reapplies her mascara and touches up her lipstick. Darla wants her smile to be the first thing he notices.
She can hardly contain herself now. He’ll be here any minute…
The blond boy has been living in a tree fort. He knows his parents must be worried, but he’s not ready to go home yet. Besides, the fort has everything he needs: a sleeping bag and flashlight, a stack of old Marvel comics, and a transistor radio that only ever plays his favorite songs. He gets hungry sometimes, though never enough to make him want to leave. He likes the quiet and the cool breeze that smells of jasmine. He looks at the stars and listens to the radio. He naps for long stretches at a time. He’s not sure how long, but when he wakes up the sky is always dark.
He knows if he went home now, his parents would be furious. The boy has a cousin, Darren, who is three years older than him. Years ago, Darren ran away from home and was gone for the better part of a week. For the first couple of days, Darren’s folks were in a rage. His dad promised take his belt and thrash that boy to within an inch of his sorry life. But the days dragged on and phone calls were returned from friends saying they hadn’t seen him, flyers were posted around the neighborhood and the police kept asking more troubling and embarrassing questions. By the time Darren finally was found—sleeping in an old camper parked in a neighbor’s driveway two blocks away, living off Pop-Tarts and RC Cola—his parents were so relieved they forgot they had ever been angry. That’s the trick of it, the blond boy reasons. Stay away long just long enough for your folks to stop being mad and start being afraid.
His cousin is easily the coolest person he knows. Darren can do a handstand on his skateboard for nearly half a mile straight, swear to God, and is always smooth when it comes to talking to girls. When he is older, the blond boy wants to be just like him.
The radio plays a song by Paul McCartney & Wings. The one about Venus and Mars: red lights, green lights, strawberry wine… The boy finds himself drifting into sleep again. Funny, he can’t even remember why he left home in the first place. It’s not like things were ever that bad. Still, give them a little more time to worry before heading back. One more day should be enough.
Tonight he will dream strange dreams about an empty beach on a crystal blue sea, and a dark red sky rolling above. And a weird little house that could hold everyone in the world if it had to. Tomorrow he will go home. Just as soon as the sun comes up.
Tonight is Halloween. The eve of All Souls’ Day. A night for revels and mischief. When the veil between this world and the next is thin as gossamer. Tonight is the night the ghosts come out and play.
All along the Avenues, pumpkins grin from porches, and paper ghosts and witches hang in windows. Little kids are already out tricking and treating, even though the sun hasn’t gone down yet.
Every year, La Bruja sets out a plate of pan de muerto—a sweet pastry flavored with cinnamon and anise seed—on the stoop of her little house at the end of her crooked little street. These goodies are free for the taking, but no one ever comes to her door. They won’t even walk past the front her house. Not even the adults, not on a dare. But that’s all right. By morning, every last morsel and crumb will be gone.
Behind her house, La Bruja has set up for a party. Streamers are hung and luminaria are lit. At one end of the little yard stands a lopsided table decorated with brilliant sprays of marigolds, colorfully painted miniature skulls and scores of candles. Two figures stand at the back of the table: a two-foot porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary, smiling beatifically in blue and white robes, and the carved wooden figure of Queen Mictecacihuatl, skeletal empress of the underworld.
Once the sun sets, La Bruja will remove the heart-shaped lock from the little dollhouse and open it wide. All those inside are invited to join the festivities.
It is an unruly scene: La Bruja sits on a wicker settee, smoking a fat cigar and drinking whiskey from a communion chalice. She claps along as the Tinker plays a wild Irish reel on his fiddle and Crazy Bobby, who was once this close to being a rock ’n’ roll star, strums along on a battered guitar. The Fox and Darla manage to dance a lively tarantella to the rhythm.
There is music, laughter and toasts to absent friends. Grudges and worries are put aside for the evening. The guests allow whatever burdens they carry to slip from their shoulders. Even the Doctor puts down his book and dances the foxtrot with Sister Agnes.
After a time, some of the ghosts desert the party and venture into the wider world. From sundown to sunrise, they are free do as they please. And they are not alone. Countless ghosts from centuries past walk the earth tonight. They come to stand watch over their children or grandchildren, to comfort a spouse they left behind, or to simply remind themselves that they too were briefly among the living. But the ghosts in the care of La Bruja are bound by a particular rule: They must return home to the little house before the sun comes up or be forever banished.
The Fox drifts to a favorite haunt near Olvera Street and sits at the end of the bar, boasting of the beautiful women he has danced with. Sister Agnes will wander back to a little nowhere town in Montana, sit on the steps of the house she grew up in and marvel at how much her street has changed, and how little. She will reminisce about a tall, blue-eyed man she once knew and how she almost gave up everything for him. Funny, she can’t even remember his name now.
Every year there are some who choose not to come back. They find their graves and lay themselves to rest. They walk into the sea at daybreak, glitter upon waves for a brief, golden moment, and then are gone. Or they simply drift away like smoke on the breeze. Most, however, will return home, to the comfort of old patterns, and resume their strange half-life. Many don’t even step outside the little house in the first place, not even for the party. And that’s all right. It’s just not their time. They simply aren’t ready to let go.
The blond boy doesn’t bother with the party. He’s never felt comfortable around grown-ups, especially those he’s never met. Besides, it’s been forever since he felt the ground beneath his feet and he wants badly to stretch his legs. He wanders out into the street and is delighted to find that it is Halloween, his favorite night of the year. He snatches a piece of sweet bread from the plate on the door stoop and wolfs it down in three quick bites. He hadn’t realized he was so hungry. He grabs two more pieces and heads out into the night.
He joins the throng of children going from door to door. It would be nice to have a costume, but he doesn’t mind. He is too absorbed in the wildness of the night, awed by the sounds and scents, the garish, lurid colors. He doesn’t have a bag or pillowcase, so he stuffs candy into his pockets or, more often, eats it on the way to the next house. He’s only gone to six or seven houses when he hears voices calling out to him:
“Hey! Kid! Over here!”
He sees them standing at the end of the block. A pack of boys, a half dozen or so, all about his age, give or take a year. Their hair is shorter than his and some of their clothes are so old-fashioned he mistakes them for costumes. They in turn have mistaken the blond boy as one of their own, just another departed soul playing hooky on All Hallows’ Eve. Back for one more run through the candle-lit streets, one more night of mischief and abandon. They don’t bother with introductions, yet right away they all feel like old friends.
“Are we all here, now? Let’s go!”
They move with single purpose, like a flock of crows, crossing the city side to side and back again in less time than it takes to think. They throw eggs at police cars and run hooting like the madmen. They set off firecrackers in the underpass below the freeway, so they echo like thunder. They find a carnival at the YMCA and go through the haunted house three times in a row without paying once. They eat cotton candy until their tongues are blue and their fingers stick together. At the face-painting booth they all have their faces made up to look like skeletons. They are a tribe now, a band of merry pirates. Drunk on the mad, wild joy of youth that doesn’t think even a minute ahead or waste one moment’s thought on the past.
In the park, they run like wolves and howl like devils. They do handstands and back-flips off the picnic tables. They race and they wrestle. They laugh till their sides ache and eat candy till they are sick. By now, their make-up streaks bizarrely down their faces from all the sweat, tumbling and roughhousing.
Late into the night, when the city has fallen silent, the boys gather in a circle on the grass. They pass a flashlight around, counter-clockwise, and swap spooky stories. They tell the one about the hitch-hiking axe murderer, and the one about the teenagers and the bloody hook. They tell that old story about the Weeping Woman, the ghost mother who steals lost children away, believing them to be her own.
A little before dawn, when they can’t hold their eyes open a moment longer, they stretch out in the grass and lie side by side, like a neat row of graves. No more playing now, or even talking. They just lie there too tired to move, but still too alive to sleep. This is the happiest the blond boy has ever been. The best night of his life. The world could end and he wouldn’t even notice.
There is no other thought in his head when the sun finally rises.
Ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. But surely it could never happen to you. You are too sensible and too clever. You know to go to bed each night fully content with how you spent the day. You do not leave important things unsaid or undone. You never wait for tomorrow—always tomorrow—to speak your piece, make your mark or dance as much as your heart desires. You know to live without fear or regret, unburdened, so that any day may be a good day to die.
It’s simple, really. But simple and easy are hardly the same thing.
Anyway, everyone knows there’s no such thing as ghosts. There is no crazy witch woman with a funny little dollhouse full of lost souls. How could there be? They’re just stories. They’re only trying to scare you.
Remember that, should the shadows ever come for you. When your life slips from your control and you wake one day feeling strangely numb and hollow, like a faint echo of yourself. Lost in limbo, treading the same old ground in ever tightening circles. When fear turns your heart to stone and freezes you to the spot. Remind yourself that it’s all pretend. It’s just your imagination getting carried away with things. You can always move on, as soon as you are ready.
Wake up, wake up, fly away home…
Brian Holguin has been a professional writer of comics and prose for more than two decades. Highlights include the award-winning urban fantasy series Aria, the ground-breaking independent comic book series Spawn, and the Dark Crystal graphic novel prequel, Creation Myths. He lives in Southern California.
Other Strange Houses:
Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.
Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks Welcome, honored guest, to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.
A July Story, by K.L. Owens Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.
We are crows, circling round the wake of death, black wings silent as we glide, waiting, waiting.
The big one’s gonna hit. Any second now. Iv’s thoughts coat mine like oil, slide away, always so clear in the moment but impossible to hold on to. Iv, my crow. My shell. My ship.
They told me, before, that being joined with Iv would be like living in a constant state of déjà vu. Like remembering something from a previous life, always a surprise when it happens but somehow familiar, like I’ve been silently preparing for just this thing.
There’s the explosion. The volley of missiles impact and my eyes widen even as my hands are ready to guide us in. We flock, the whole murder of us, as the Branthel 99X [JUPITER CLASS] Three Moons loses itself to the cold. The Distress blares as we approach, our sleek bodies the absence of light, wrapped in warmth and silence and life.
It carries something in its belly. It has eaten well and deep and so shall we. Rip it open. Feed. I shiver as the thoughts come, pins and needles down my spine.
Another volley might scream out from opposition at any moment, or else the Three Moons might trip its self-destruct, or else—We are in, talons digging into metal, finding purchase on the burnt slag of ship.
Xi(a) runs point, beak snapping at bits of debris—filling up on garbage. But then, maybe Xi knows something Iv isn’t telling me. Crows can be like that, secretive. It doesn’t mean we trust them any less. They are part of us now, after all.
I keep my beak shut as we push deeper into the ship, though each scrap that hits the light tempts me. I feel the call of something deeper, tastier. I wait, using the hunger to push me past Xi(a), past the bodies now thicker, now thicker.
A Jupiter Class can hold five thousand in crew and soldiers, though I know there’s no way the Far Home would have put so many aboard. Two, maybe? The war with the Near Home has cost them much—planets of people are gone through this conflict. Like me. Gone into the dark. Only I’ve come back.
Second right. Very close. Be careful. Iv’s voice is a cold shadow in my mind I follow on instinct.
I come to sealed bulkheads. Cumbersome to breach but my claws are sharp. I tear and scratch. Behind me the others pick over bodies, snapping out ID chips, ripping free whole neural arrays. Flesh gives like slush. Weakened metal punctures, and around us the corridor shudders and releases as air is pushed into the void. The bulkhead puckers enough to allow us through.
Inside I hesitate, tasting the fleeing traces of air and hope. Hallways branch and I surge ahead, as if by muscle memory, following the ghost of Iv’s intent—forward, then right. There’s another door but it cannot hold me. I—I wait, listen. There is something strange about this. Movement behind the door, the smell of electricity and something acrid, chemical. I wonder at the extra shielding to this area, able to withstand a direct hit from a Near Home barrage. I push my questions and doubts away and crash through the door.
Inside is a swarm of people, scientists—and something else, something hot and shiny and I need it. Weapons fire at me but I’m already dodging, already sweeping wings, claws, beak. I aim for masks and hoses, don’t need to kill them direct, just buy myself time. The firing stops and the source of my desperation looks like an egg of liquid metal suspended in a cylindrical stasis pod. No bigger than a human fist.
I snap up the egg and a dozen other things from the table—tools and data chips and whatever else, then turn and fly. My squawk is a call, a warning. Speed is impossible in the corridors but I half-fly, half-crash through and through and out until the void is clear again and the Near Home Verol G9 [URSA CLASS] Starborn stares me in the face.
Stand-down orders shout through all channels. I dim them as I dive, seeing the telltale twinkle of a thousand piranha missiles firing at once. My caw is desperate as I sheer down, back, away, away. I do not worry about the missiles, which are larger than me but which lack the power to track us. I worry about debris. I worry about what else might be lurking around the perimeter of the battle, waiting. We crows are not the only scavengers, nor the largest.
Nor the fastest, it turns out. The barrage hits the Three Moons and Vi(ctor)’s squawk as he pulls himself free of the last corridor, weighed down by meat and swag, is indignant. I clench my jaw and fly. The mourning can come later, now we need to fly. But it doesn’t stop the pain, and in my beak there is the faintest vibration, as if something responds to that pain. Iv is strangely silent.
I was chosen because of my name. And yes, okay, I volunteered, too, but millions volunteered. It meant avoiding infantry, the meat grinder, which everyone knows well to avoid, or to try to avoid. Does it matter that the science is untested, that the price is your mind? We all wanted to live, and that’s what guided us, what guides us still.
But there’s something about the military and names. Or scientists and names? My profile ticked all the right boxes. Asexual, aromantic, introverted, no history of violence or resistance, high testing in special relations, logic, and reflexes. But there were hundreds that fit, and they needed only eleven. So they picked us for our names. I(ván), I(a)i(n), I(th)i(r)i(al), Iv(y), V(era), Vi(ctor), Vi(v)i(an), Vi(r)i(d)i(an), Ix, X(an), and Xi(a).
I’m not sure how many of those not chosen are still alive. Not many. And I’m not sure how to feel about still being alive. It’s what I wanted. But that was back when I was Ivy, before I became the fourth of eleven. Before Iv came along and made me less than half a name.
Five of us fly into Circus Field, where more ships than stars crowd the void, a gathering place of the unaligned. There are ships of every make and taste, some bought and paid but most stolen or cobbled together from small bits of shine. Security is a cloud of Verol PP2 [OSPREY CLASS] fighters with a pair of PP8 [HERON CLASS] patrollers coordinating. Even the PP2s, the smallest make of military value, are about ten times our size—we transmit passcodes and wait to acknowledge permission to trade, but they could not stop us, catch us, even if they twisted all their resources to the task. We do not come as friends, because crows are friends of no one, but we come full of shine, which will be enough.
Vi(v)i(an) is waiting at Crows Home, what people call the converted Extril BGX [PELICAN CLASS] Sprig of Holly that we scavenged mostly whole following the Third Raid of Heliocrux. The field had been so full of dead and dying that we crows had eaten for months off the spoils, coils, and codes. We simply call the vessel the shop, because crows do not have homes, are welcomed nowhere and so live nowhere, brooding wherever possible until storm or fire or humans push them on. The first thing Vi(v)i(an) notices is that we’re short one, and as we bow our heads she rips the void with a clacking call, loss and warning, loss and warning, over and over again.
When she is done we take turns spitting our hauls onto the floor of the shop. It was a minor battle but we have eaten well. I(ván) coughs up a mostly-undamaged null-shield, preens as the others gawk and snap their beaks in agitation. I hang back, feeling the egg, which is both hot and cold. The wait is shorter than it used to be, without Vi(ctor). Without I(a)i(n) or I(th)i(r)i(al) or V(era) or Vi(r)i(d)i(an). Only six of us now, and only five who fly the void since Vi(v)i(an)’s brush with a neuronanite trap. Her steps stretch with a deep limp and her wings will not unclench from her sides, will no longer unfurl, embrace the void. Still she holds on, acts as our base of operations and hawker, which causes her no end of amusement.
When the others are done, I am careful to release the tools and detritus first. The others gaze hungrily at everything—even without the final reveal I have rivaled I(ván)’s haul, the tools specialized and expensive, the datachips gleaming with research and other classifieds. Then I set the stasis pod down into the middle of my pile, and five heads tilt to the side as one. The electric curiosity of their attention is new. I let the pod down and feel a new chill inside me, a cold pit of anticipation. We crowd forward to examine the pod but Vi(v)i(an) darts in with her beak and snatches it up, and we shrink back, none willing to press.
“Where did you get this?”
I tell her what I am able, which isn’t much. The lab, the guards, the scientists. I do not know what this is or what it could be, but I spend as little time as possible among the gossipmongers and traders, so I am not the one to ask. Vi(v)i(an) flies now in entirely different circles, wings of information replacing those she’s lost to the neuronanites, and so I hope she can tell me what I have discovered.
“It’s not worth the trouble,” I(ván) says, no doubt wanting to go back to admiring the shine we’ve collected.
“Shut it and let Viv work,” Xi(a) says, beak snapping. She and I(ván) have never gotten along, he too proud and she too small, fast. Xia, she will introduce herself, like See-Ya! And then she will be voidward and onward, a streak of movement, something valuable trapped in her talon.
“Why not let the adults talk, little one,” I(ván) says, ruffled.
“Why not fuck yourself, old man. Just because you were made first doesn’t mean you were made best.”
It’s an old argument and one that Ix cuts short with an angry squawk. Ix, who doesn’t speak in human terms any more, who is normally least present, eyes too busy scouting unseen patterns in the stars. Right now Ix is focused entirely on the pod, and they hush all noise with a flutter of wings and a narrowing of their eyes.
“This is familiar,” Vi(v)i(an) says, putting the cylinder down on a scanner. “I’ve…been looking into ways of getting around the bugs that messed up Vii.” Her voice is raw for a second but recovers, and we all are silent, still. “They aren’t susceptible to most countermeasures, but from what I’ve seen it would be possible, if we had the original Corvid bioform, to—”
“That’s the Corvid bioform?” Xi(a) asks. The rest of us hold our breath.
The Corvid bioform. The progenitor of the entire Corvid class of ship. Our class of ship, which included a production run of eleven. A failed experiment. Had the Far Home decided to try again?
“No, but it’s similar,” Vi(v)i(an) says.
They’re coming for you. You need to go. Iv’s words send a spike of panic up my back. My head twists to the side, as if there’s a predator lurking behind us. Vi(v)i(an) continues talking.
“There’s not a lot for sale on bioforms,” she says. “Living ships were abandoned after…after us, and any new research is strictly classified. But there have been whispers.”
“The war’s going poorly for the Far Home,” X(an) says, matter of fact. “I read it on the Three Moons. They’re running out of soldiers. There were only twelve hundred aboard when the barrage hit.”
Of course e would have checked. Data has always been eir favorite shine.
I walk over to the long range scanners, distracted from the conversation. I should be paying attention, but something is nagging at me and I’ve learned enough not to ignore it.
“I’ve heard that they’re looking into living ships again,” Vi(v)i(an) says. “Though they’ve given up on the augur engine and ship sentience. After what happened with us…but they’ve also made the structures less rigid, the delivery vector more viral, so they could convert larger numbers quickly.”
“What the fuck’s it supposed to be, then?” Xi(a) asks.
The question is running through my mind, as well. The whole purpose of the Corvid experiment was to create a living ship, smart and adaptive, able to predict events. Magic, essentially, because I never understood the science of it. I only understood that, while there was a small chance of success, it was a hell of a lot better than entering the meat grinder.
My hand brushes the scanner controls, brings up the channel feeds of the Circus.
“I’m thinking they want suits smart enough to react to the pilots but not be fully aware,” Vi(v)i(an) says. “More computer than bird. Able to shrink and grow and change shape. Like a shape-shifting suit that can become a ship and then revert back into clothing, neurally linked to the pilot but not cocooning them.”
I swallow. I see it, at the edges of the feeds. Small queries about long distance readings. And something else. One voice asking after a murder of crows. Has anyone seen them? Have they attempted to sell—
“We need to go,” I say. My hands fly over the controls and cast the net wider, beyond the Circus. The feeds begin to grow more frantic as others start to see it. A fleet. Far Home. My eyes soar over the displays. Two Jupiter Class carriers and at least ten Mars Class battleships. Saturn Class, Venus Class, Khyber Class—it’s a full fleet, moving slow but too fast for the Circus to disperse in time.
The others scatter, X(an) going for the controls while I(ván) and Ix gather up the shine. Xi(a) helps Vi(v)i(an) with the pod. I remain at the controls, waiting for what I know is coming. It takes all of twenty-five seconds, by which time X(an) already has us moving through the shifting currents of the Circus.
They deliver their message on an open frequency. “Deliver the Crows and you can live.”
It’s strange, the urge to live. For a long time I was angry about it. Still am, really. Angry at people’s selfish desire to keep on living. Wasn’t enough to fuck over Earth. Wasn’t enough to fuck over everything we ever knew and fling ourselves into the stars with all the care of a gaggle of drunken toddlers. Wasn’t enough to start this idiotic war about what planet to call New Earth, which was really more about branding for the Big Four ship manufacturers than it was about human pride and integrity.
I can’t blame them, except I can. I mean, we’re here. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to die, but I can sure as shit blame people for still thinking doing nothing but reproducing will make it any better. Legions of people and all they do is sell their children to the war in hopes it will grow full enough to spare them. Maybe that’s not fair, but as one of those sold I don’t care about being fair. The real blame might belong elsewhere, but there was a choice and I didn’t get to make it. The first time I got an option it was how I wanted to die. Infantry or pilot. Certain death or uncertain.
There are costs to participate, they told me. No touch. The ship will always encase me. No sex, no eating, no pissing or shitting. And okay, the last I’m sure most would be quick to give up. And the first I never cared for. I had never found eating that satisfying, but not being hungry? That’s something different. I’ve never had enough food to care how it tasted. So yeah, sign me up, Mx. Recruiter. Cover me in your Corvid suit and I’ll try not to scream as it burrows into me, as I stop being me and start being us. As I start hearing a voice I can never remember. At least this is me choosing something.
And when you underestimate the process? When you think the Crows will somehow stay obedient, that they’ll be so grateful to you for feeding them living people so they can fight for you? Well, this time we don’t wait to be given options. We take. We take and we take and we take and you can’t tell us we’re wrong or bad if you can never catch us. Eat slag. Eat the fire and death you serve up on planets like they’re dinner plates. Eat the trail of void our wings leave in our wake.
It’s never a surprise to run, and it has nothing to do with seeing the future. At least, I hope there’s no voice constantly droning in my head, You cannot stay you cannot stay you cannot stay. The crows don’t need to bother, because it’s something even we humans can figure out, taught by the string of places left behind.
The Circus will not protect us, and we don’t have long now before they come en masse for us, sacrifices to appease angry gods. Crows have always been blamed for bad luck. Storm heralds and battle gorgers. Servants of evil, because people think since they can’t see into the dark there’s something menacing lurking there. Never quite believing that it’s mostly just empty, that crows are just more comfortable there than most.
You’ve got to get to Ourla. Iv’s voice is an itch in the back of my mind—I see an image. Dr. Ourla. The lead researcher on the Corvid program. A man I haven’t thought about in a long time. Why now?
“You all need to hit the void,” Vi(v)i(an) says, and I wince. We all wince. This isn’t open for debate or hesitation. When Crows say we need something, we act. So we all get to it. I(ván) gathers up a few choice pieces of shine while Xi(a) delivers the stasis pod to me and Ix fiddles with something in the corner.
“We have about three minutes before they start firing on us,” X(an) says. It’s been two years here, at the Circus, among other people avoiding the war, resisting Far Home and Near Home both, at least passively. Gone now. Vi(v)i(an) pecks X(an) in the shoulder.
“Get to the hatch,” she says. “No way I’ll make it out of here. It’s me that pilots this ship to the end.”
X(an) almost looks like e’s going to argue but shrugs instead and stands, walks over to where we gather by the hatch.
“But what do we do with this?” Xi(a) asks, holding the pod, still facing Vi(v)i(an). “You’re the only one who knows anything about it.”
“Dr. Ourla,” I say. The others glance at me, features twitching at the name, but there is understanding as well. The recognition of the truth of the name.
“We could always just give it back,” I(ván) says, though his voice shakes as he says it.
We don’t answer him. Ix squawks from where they were working and stands, joins us near the hatch. They’ve tampered with the null shield. My eyes widen slightly as I see what they’ve done.
“That should do lovely,” Vi(v)i(an) says, and we can see the glimmer of her eyes. Two years, and here we are. Crows know to be comfortable while you can, but to know your exits.
Go. I’m giddy with Iv’s voice in my head, gone before I can fully comprehend. Maybe they’re just saying goodbye.
The hatch opens and we wing into the chaos. The Circus is still roiling around us, a thousand thousand ships making a hurricane of activity, the urge to flee and fight and surrender warring on every micro and macro scale. Only we are determined as we fly. Away from the fleet. Away from the Circus and whatever safety it might have offered us if we belonged. The mood of the storm is changing, making up its mind in waves. The first shots are fired at Crows Home, which dodges the worst and takes the rest harmlessly to its shields.
Ships can track us, too, of course. They know we’re flying. But for now we’re outrunning their fear.
They’re not going to let you leave.
We glide through the ships, pushing outward. Most are more than willing to see the back of us and offer no resistance. Some need to be reminded how sharp our claws are and we let them live because if we started killing now there would be a frenzy. Crows Home lets itself be herded, toward the fleet. I patch into the channels and hear the calls going out. We have them, we have them, take them and let us live. I clench my claws so hard the pain almost makes me miss the flitting shadows of the PP2s.
My cry alerts the others a moment before the PP2s open fire—three dozen cannons turn the void into plasma. They should have stayed out of it.
Ix takes the lead and we fall in behind them except for Xi(a), who draws what fire she can as we make for the PP8s, weaving between the PP2s, a tapestry of destruction. Everything is hot and close and fast but we were built for it and built hungry and we find their eyes and blind them. Metal feels like flesh and tastes sweet as we tear apart the PP8s. Without their coordination and sophisticated scans the relatively simply PP2s are stabbing in the dark, something they have no experience doing while we are old masters. What is left of them lets us flee and calls it a victory because on the other side of the Circus, Crows Home is being buoyed by the Far Home fleet.
We can see Vi(v)i(an) in our minds, imagine her tilting her head as she examines their approach vectors, as she times everything. The null-shield beeps, an almost avian sound, as she presses where Ix made their adjustment. And then a white explosion, and we imagine her happy that at least they will not feast on her corpse. That is the job of a crow and she would not want others to profane our work.
We fly, the void wrapping us in cold arms. And as we move our voices rise together, loss and warning, loss and warning, over and over again.
We were made to work together. Eleven ships that could go where others could not. Flying as one, each with a separate glimpse of the future—some far out, some much closer into what will be. Some sensing danger and some seeing goals and some doing a little bit of everything. We were made to work together, only whole with all eleven active, together, a beautiful murder.
I wonder sometimes if they were warned. Did Vi(ctor) know the barrage was coming, and just ignore the feeling? Was he tired of living on the whispers of a voice that was only an absence? Or did Vi not warn him? Was Vi the one tired, seeking that final solitude?
It’s impossible to know the truth. Sometimes I speak to Iv and I feel a tingle on my skin. My actual skin and not the organic metal of the crow. Being a crow means never being alone, means being able to stand the void without blinking or turning away.
What I know is that Vi(ctor) isn’t really gone. He’s an absence, but he’s not gone. If I close my eyes I can still feel him. We might look like only five crows cutting through the dark, but there are six shadows that fly with us, and we are still active, together, a beautiful murder.
We know where Dr. Ourla is. Even in the void there are some things we will never forget, some faces that chase us, that are seared into our minds. Enemy. Parent. Even the thought of him makes me want tear at myself—pull my feathers, spit curses into the void. Better yet, to tear at him, to pay him back in blood and pain and loss. There is no solace in the fact that he was punished, that he languishes in confinement on the edge of space.
Breaking into prison is child’s play.
With the Circus gone, there are few enough places to run to, and fewer with labs sufficient for the task at hand. We return to the beginning. Our beginning, at least. On a little moon once firmly in the grip of the Far Home. In the nebulous disputed zones between the two great powers, there is a now-deserted compound we all know well.
“I knew you wouldn’t leave me there,” Dr. Ourla says as we herd him into the lab where we were made. “I knew you would thank me for what I did for you.”
“Thank you?” Xi(a) approaches, beak gaping, promising. I(ván) is right beside her, the two finally united in their hatred of Ourla. “You’re lucky we don’t bite you in two.”
“But I did so much for you,” he says, though he is wise enough to stumble back as Ix and I hold our wings to prevent the others from ripping him apart. “And you’ve done so much. The news they feed us is heavily filtered, but I can still see your marks. Embarrassments for both sides. How would you have managed that, if I hadn’t made you—”
“You do not get to claim our victories as your own,” X(an) says, eyes narrow. “Nothing we do or accomplish will ever make your actions noble or right.”
“But then why free me?” he asks.
To take. To take to take to take to take. I suck in a breath, suppress the urge to taste his blood, to see the dull shine of his heart in my beak.
“Because we need you,” I say, and produce the stasis pod. Even though it is all of ours, it was mine first, and not even I(ván) questions that I should carry it. Ourla’s eyes widen when he sees it.
“We need to know what this is,” I say. I do not say why. I do not say that I already have a plan for it, that I can hear the whispers of something in my mind that I trust, even I don’t quite understand them. I know the plan starts here, with Ourla and the bioform.
Ourla’s face darkens as he steps forward, examining the pod.
“Those bastards,” he says, fist pounding the table the pod sits on. The rest of us share quick glances, unsure of this reaction. Of all the ways we expected him to respond, anger was not one.
“It wasn’t bad enough that they locked me away,” he says, “for doing exactly what they wanted me to do. But now they’ve stolen my work. My life’s work.”
“So it’s related to the Corvid bioform?” X(an) asks.
I keep my attention sharp. Most of the science of what we are is beyond me. The crows…I know that they are alive, know that they are aware, that their skin now coats my own in material stronger than steel but able to feed on solar radiation and transform it into energy, able to integrate into my body, recycling my waste, making it so that I don’t need to eat or breathe. Beyond that, I am a mystery even to myself.
“Related, though…grotesque,” Ourla says. He already has the pod onto one of the analysis tables, is already scanning its data. “They stripped away the elegance. The interface is barbaric, the bioform completely slaved to the host. It’s…it’s a mockingbird.”
“We understand it can fly,” X(an) says. “Will it give the host the same integrated metabolism?”
The void is a cold place indeed if everyone starves before they can reach a new world. Iv’s words are a whisper stolen by the distance of neurons in my mind, but I find I’m holding my breath as I wait for the scans to progress, for Ourla to answer.
“Yes,” he says. “But they learned from their mistakes. They’ve encoded a failsafe. A kill switch. Otherwise it’s brilliant. Viral. It can be passed blood to blood, activates almost instantly. A planet of people could be transformed within weeks. Days, if there’s no resistance.”
I imagine whole worlds emptied of people, drawn into the war. I imagine the scouts, telling everyone the suit is theirs, their ticket from hunger, their ticket from a government stealing their resources, their blood, their will. The thought of wings, of freedom…only to find that the wings carry a price tag, the freedom a cage. Fight or die. It’s not difficult to believe.
“Can you disable the failsafe?” X(an) asks. We are all leaning closer to the conversation, waiting, waiting.
“Why should I?” Ourla says, face twisting into something ugly, utterly human.
What does any man like this want, after everything?
“To hurt those who hurt you,” I say. “To take the work they stole from you and use it as a weapon to make them pay. To make sure none forget your brilliance. Together, we can end the war for good.”
The smile that spreads across his face is all the answer I need about his intentions.
Crows use tools. Crows mourn for their fallen. Crows never forget a face. Somewhere in all the facts about crows there is something else as well, the shadow of a voice.
A crow is never alone. A crow dies free.
They’ve found you. It’s time to leave.
I blink and shake my head. I’ve been staring out the window, at the gray desolation of the moon. Inside the lab my wings feel cramped, but I know better than to leave. We’re running out of time. I move to where the others are waiting, watching Ourla work. He keeps bobbing and making small noises as his hands move over the pod, modifying the code, the structures of the bioform.
“Is it ready?” I ask.
Ourla grunts and steps back. “It’s not my most elegant work,” he says, “but I’ve disabled the failsafe. At least, I’ve made it so it can’t be activated from outside. The host will still be aware of it, and if they choose to activate it, well…”
I retrieve the pod, take it inside me again. It’s enough. Better, even, because it means no one will be taken against their will, that anyone wanting to become a mockingbird will have the ultimate control over their bodies and souls. We’ve taken the shackles the armies have wrought and repurposed them into wings. We move toward the exit hatch and Ourla trots after us until Ix notices and turns, snaps the air between them with their beak.
“What is the meaning of this?” Ourla asks, puffing out his chest. Ix’s body lowers, body tensing at the tone of Ourla’s voice.
“We thank you for your assistance,” X(an) says.
“But you’re a right bastard and we never want to see you again,” Xi(a) says.
The words seem to wash around him without sinking in.
“You can’t leave me like this,” he says. “You need to find me a ship. If they find me again, they’ll—”
“They’ll lock you back up,” I say. “And probably not be as gentle about it this time.”
“But I helped you,” he says. Then, in a whisper, “I created you.”
Ix coughs up a pistol onto the floor between them and we all turn and file out of the lab. From the void we can already feel the massive shape of an approaching fleet. We take wing.
We dance the distance between stars, our feathers glistening in the starlight. Out here we glow, hum with the song of radiation and propulsion and hope. We never asked to have the void as our map, the stars as our landmarks. And now that we have it, I often wonder what we’re supposed to do with it.
Fly free. Feel yourself a point of shadow against the darkness and call out into the silent reaches. We are here, we are here, we are here. Is there any answer?
The sky is full of wings. Millions of wings. The planet, a remote outpost of the Near Home, has changed quickly. At least, the life on it has. Nearly everyone, even those who have no intention of leaving the surface, who will never once reach into the air and pull, has accepted the gifts we bring. Our mockingbird children.
It is freedom. Not only from gravity but also hunger. Cold. Distance. Many have already left. While the Far Home and Near Home battle on the borders of their space, arguing over who has the better right to pursue us, everyone is slipping between. What does near or far matter when we can make our home in the void. Never still, we can carry it with us.
They are joining forces. They will come for you.
Millions strong, we could fight them now. With the mockingbirds beside we could tear them apart with the strength of a million beaks pecking as one. We could beat them. Instead, I look around me. I(ván) and Ix and X(an) and X(ia) all stand, and I can feel the shadows filling the circle—I(a)i(n) and I(th)i(r)i(an) and V(era) and Vi(ctor) and Vi(v)i(an) and Vi(r)i(d)i(an).
There are so many other planets to see, suns that glitter like bits of shine. We all crane our necks upward and call. Sorrow and warning, sorrow and warning, over and over again. And all around us the void fills with voices calling back.
You are not alone.
Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, contributes as short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.
The Earth and Everything Under, by K.M. Ferebee – Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight.
The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace – Smoke rose from the center of Asunder Island, marring a sky so blue and so clear it made Aurelia’s eyes ache. The sailors had been insisting for days she would see the Atrox swooping and turning overhead, if only she watched long enough, but there was no sign of the great birds.
Birds on An Island, by Charlie Bookout – I sent the last package to Arkansas today. I made it a point at the beginning never to use the same post office twice, so I drove up to Lubec this time. The roads in this part of Maine don’t offer much to look at—miles of pine forests, wild blueberry fields, little else—and it’s a long way back to my house, so I’ve fallen again into thinking about the lady who came from there, from Arkansas. I hate that I can’t remember her first name.
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