Tag Archives: death

Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey

Georg Cantor waits while his wife Vally pulls at the heavy door to the Nervenklinik. The crisp air smells of leaves and wood smoke, but as they pass into the white-tiled halls disinfectant envelops them.

The nurse comes and introduces herself. Cantor says nothing. He has not spoken in a month. He rarely even focuses his eyes. The nurse leads them down long passages. Their shoes snap at the marble floor. After many turns, they stop at a white door that opens to his room: a narrow bed covered with taut white sheets, a comfortable chair facing a window that looks out onto a lawn edged by waving oaks, a round rug on the cherry floor.

Vally seats him in the chair. “You need rest, Georg,” she whispers.

Cantor looks out at the oaks. They hold tenaciously to their last few leaves.

To the nurse Vally says, “We lost our dear son Rudolf. That was hard. And my husband is a professor. A mathematician. He has achieved great things. But the strain is great. And then, that wretched Kronecker in Berlin. It’s all too much.”

The nurse nods, professionally sympathetic as she straightens the room. The name means nothing to her, but the point is clear: the cruelty of other men.

Vally leaves, followed by the nurse, whose soft shoes squeak as she backs out and pulls the door till its lock clicks. Cantor holds his breath and listens. The rustle of scales against plaster is faintly audible. He expected this. The dragon is here already, coiled in the walls of the clinic.

Cantor stands and presses his cheek to the cool plaster by the window. “I hear you, wyrm,” he says.

The dragon rustles in response, contracting.

“Wyrm,” Cantor whispers, to provoke, to invoke.

Cantor kissed his son’s forehead after the boy coughed blood one last time and stopped breathing. Vally gasped and held her breath. The doctor backed into a corner, ashamed. And Cantor heard, distinctly, an eager rustling in the walls.

dragonTwo days later, when Cantor finally collapsed into sleep, he had the nightmare that silenced him and led him to the brittle quiet of the Nervenklinik.

He sees a rising narrow stair. It stretches up and up. Beyond its peak a golden light glows, pale and weak with distance. Children sit and stand on the stair. Most of them weep as they peer at the impossible summit, wishing they could catch some sliver of its meager warmth. Others have collapsed with despair, their backs turned on the light.

“Climb!” Cantor cries to them. But his voice is a choked moan. It moves no one.

That’s when the horrible thought comes to him: Rudolf is on that slope. With his weak lungs, his throat choked with blood, and without his father, Rudolf will give up. He is halted on the way, in the half darkness.

“Climb!” Cantor tries to howl. The effort does nothing but wake him.

The second night in the clinic, after the nurse leaves with the dinner plates under silver lids, clucking disapproval because Herr Doktor has merely tasted his food, the dragon folds the wall aside. Cantor is surprised. He did not know the dragon had this trick. He half expected the dragon did not exist.

It pulls at a corner, and the plaster bends neatly away. Someone will prove that kind of folding is possible, Cantor realizes. He sees in an instant how it works: sets of uncountably many points can be rearranged into new, smaller spaces.

But Cantor has other, more pressing thoughts. He beholds the dragon’s black head, its black shining scales, the smooth and sensitive circular membrane of each ear, vibrating behind a black eye. Cantor cannot discern the dragon’s tongue from the flames that churn in the cup of its jaw. Fire rattles in its throat, a sound like Rudolf’s failing lungs.

The dragon is waiting on his words. It too expects him to speak.

Cantor frowns, silent and furious. Outside, strong winds turn the last leaves of the oaks over, flashing white. Black clouds speed over the bending trees and weep rain on the windows. Thunder rumbles so close that the glass rattles in the sash. Finally, Cantor can hold back his anger no longer. He hisses, “Wyrm, did you kill my son?”

Cantor knows his son died of consumption. He knows that black spots ate the boy’s lungs. But he asks again, “Wyrm, was that you, coiled in the bottom of his breath, weighing down his every gasp?”

“I am infinite,” the dragon whispers, goaded to answer, “but not everywhere.”

They are silent together a long while. Wet gusts lash the glass. Then Cantor tells the dragon, “Kronecker says I am mad: that no such thing as infinity exists, and I am a fool to claim to have tamed it. And: I talk to a dragon. The dragon cannot exist. Hence, I talk to something that does not exist. Ergo, I am mad. But about the infinite, I don’t believe I am mad. The infinite exists. Endless infinities, each larger than another.”

The dragon shifts and scratches at a scale with a single stony toenail. “How do we know if something exists?”

“If a thing would spawn no contradiction, then that thing exists.”

The dragon stretches out its neck and lifts its wings as best it can in its parallel confines. The delicate black skin hisses over the coarse, unfinished wood slats that make the back of the wall.

“And what of the dragon?” it says. “Can there be a dragon? A beast that ate too, too much? That feasted on human hopes? Count my scales. They are as numerous as numbers. My dragon brain lies folded in my scaly tail. And my tail stretches forever.” The dragon blows twin streams of pale smoke from its nostrils: dragon laughter. The gray fumes smell of coal heavy with sulfur. “But I contradict nothing: no hope, no faith, no prayer. Thus the dragon exists.”

“Quod erat demonstratum,” Cantor whispers.

There were days when his son stopped coughing blood. One April morning they went out to the park. They sat in the grass, with Rudolf wrapped in a blanket. Crocuses thrust up through the cold, damp soil. Rudolf picked them, and Cantor did not stop him, did not ask that he wait till the blooms opened. Rudolf might not live till the blooms opened.

“You take three, father,” the boy said. He always whispered, not wanting to start a coughing fit, not wanting to punctuate his words with blood. “And I’ll take three. Six is all there are.”

“Others will grow,” Cantor told him.

“For how long?”

Cantor considered this. “For so long, that it might as well be forever.”

The boy nodded. “Time enough, then.”

Vally brings Cantor a letter from a priest in Italy. The Pater writes to ask if the infinities of Cantor contradict the finitudes that Saint Thomas Aquinas demanded of the pious. Cantor is excited. He sees in an instant how the church needs his wisdom.

“I shall abandon mathematics,” he says. “And dedicate myself to philosophy and God. Theology. The Church.”

Vally smiles with hope and relief. Georg is talking to her! Like his old self!

She clutches his hands. “Yes,” she says. “You have your inheritance. We shall be fine. Come home to us. Don’t worry about those men who spurned you. They’ll be forgotten. We miss you at home. You’re such a fine father and husband. The doctor will let you come home soon, I’m sure.”

Even the dragon has seen Cantor’s kindness. At dinner every night Cantor had asked each of his children in turn to tell the story of his or her day, before he looked to his wife and said, “Thank you for this meal.”

Every day the same. The precision of a mathematician in attending to these cares: axioms of love.

“You’ll leave before the winter,” the dragon says one gray afternoon. Cantor is surprised. He thought the dragon could speak only if spoken to.

“Before the winter,” Cantor says.

“And I will curse you.”

“What empowers you to curse, wyrm?”

“I curse everyone who wonders.”

“On such a foundation I too might have this power, and curse you in kind.”

The dragon smiles, the corners of its lizard mouth curling. “My curse comes first. Soon you’ll die…”

“Soon each mortal dies,” Cantor says impatiently. “That is no curse.”

“That is not the curse,” the dragon says. “Soon you’ll die. Then you must decide between heaven and hell. Hell is near and crowded. God is infinitely far away. If you are to ascend into heaven, you must take the Dragon’s Stair. This is my curse.” The dragon shifts his head to reveal, in the dark behind his vast bulk, a narrow stair of stone.

“The first step on the stair is carved with a name,” the dragon says.

“The second step is carved with a name.

“The third step too is so carved.

“Yes, on each step is cut a name.”

And Cantor can see the names on the risers of the first stone slabs. Falcon Ells. Edgar of Canterbury. Danniston. Ali Quartermain…

“God is at the top,” the dragon says. “You climb toward God. But if you find your name on a step, you must stop there, and wait. You must wait until Judgment Day, both feet on your stone plinth.

“And Judgment Day has never come.

“Judgment Day, like God, is infinitely far away.

“No saint has made it up the stair. The innocent wait, despairing, along the way.

“Heaven is empty.”

Rudolf was usually fearless. But when he last lay down in his bed, never to rise again, he said to Cantor, “I’m scared, Papa.”

Cantor fought his tears with all his strength. He did not want to weep in front of the boy and betray his failing hope. He managed to say, “Our bodies must die. But our minds, our minds can touch the infinite.”

Rudolf nodded his head very slightly, his mouth pressed closed in determination.

“And,” Cantor said, “you must have faith that you cannot fail to find your way to God.”

“But will I be alone?” Rudolf whispered.

“Only ever for a little while. I promise you, only for a very little while.”

Outside the clinic, the leaves on the oaks darken and curl as autumn ages. Cantor scrawls symbols on stolen scraps of paper, working in secret because he has promised to remain at leisure.

dragon2“Wyrm, what is it you do, when you are not haunting me?” Cantor asks.

The dragon folds down the wall. “I sing from rooftops, hidden from view. I paint murals on buried walls. I pen short stories that are printed in little magazines. All to infect dreams.”

“Braggart,” Cantor says. Then he switches direction: “Who decides my name?”

The dragon understands the question immediately. “You do.”

Cantor smiles. “Can I name myself while climbing the stair?”

The dragon thrashes its tail in anger. It growls, and blows smoke, before it answers. “You must start to say your name before stepping upon the way.”

“But I need not finish naming myself before starting on the way?”

The dragon is silent an hour. Cantor listens to the fire fluttering in its lungs. He patiently writes out his proof as he waits for his answer.

“No,” the dragon hisses, leaking flames that cast flickering shadows along the walls. “You need not finish naming yourself before starting on the way.”

“I choose heaven,” Cantor says.

“Do not be hasty. You can wait till death before you choose.”

“I choose heaven,” Cantor repeats. “And I will choose a name for myself, a name to be writ in the Book of Judgment and to which I will answer.

“And the first letter of my name will be the letter in the alphabet that comes after the first letter of the name of the first step of the Dragon’s Stair. If it be A, I will choose B. If it be B, I will choose C. And so on. If it be Z, I will choose A.

“And the second letter of my name will be the letter in the alphabet that follows the second letter on the second stair.

“And so I will make my name, letter by letter, step by step, as I ascend.

“And this name cannot be writ on any step.”

The dragon clamps its trembling eyelids down and squeezes its mouth shut hard, choking on its own fires. Bested.

The wall is straight and white when the dawn comes. Cantor puts both hands on the plaster by the window, and says in a clear voice, “Here is my curse, dragon. You must tell, to all who will hear, this story of how I beat you.”

Before the dragon can answer, Vally pushes open the door. The nurse has brought a key that allows her to open the window. She slides the glass upward. Fresh air stirs in the room. The leaves have all fallen now from the oaks. The trees wait for the sleep of winter.

Vally packs Cantor’s few things. Her hand on his arm, they walk out into the hall and on into sunlight.

“Soon you’ll be dead,” the dragon hisses. No one hears. “Soon you’ll be alone in heaven.” But this is only spite. The dragon well knows that as Cantor rises on the way, he will gather to himself all the children of judgment and show them the way to infinity.

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Craig DeLancey is the author of Gods of Earth. He has published stories in Analog, Cosmos, Shimmer, The Mississippi Review Online, Nature Physics, and other places. His short story “Julie is Three” won the Anlab reader’s choice award. He teaches philosophy at Oswego State. Stop by his web site at www.craigdelancey.com.

Craig DeLancey
Craig DeLancey

 

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Caretaker, by Carlie St. George

The stars are all dead. You wish it didn’t haunt you, but it does, it does.

The dead come out to watch over you at night.

A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.

You tried to bring her back to life. Someone told you—wish on a star—so you wished, wished hard as you could. You didn’t know you were wishing on ghosts.

Some days, your wish came true. She looked at you those days, read you books, put on new clothes.

But the next day she’d go back to stumbling through the house.

There is a girl lying at your feet. She is the kind of dead that cannot make sandwiches, cannot blink, cannot stumble. You pick up her body and carry it to the trunk.

You drive for miles and miles. The silence is too heavy, too much. You turn on the radio to drown it out—only it’s all Kurt Cobain, Donny Hathaway, Mindy McCready, Nick Drake. You switch to Catcher in the Rye, the only audiobook you own.

The narrator sounds like your mother.

“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.”

Your mother would have been good at that, if she hadn’t been dead most days. She’d said it sounded like the best job, maybe the only worthwhile job. There was something other about your mother, something reaching for magic in a dull, dirty world. You wish you could have caught children with her in the rye, but that’s not the job she left you.

You get to the spot, near the river. You get the body. You get the shovel. You feel the weight of the stars as you dig and dig and dig.

Don’t fall, you think, don’t fall. Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall.

But stars will do what they want. People, too, when they are hopeless. You can’t reason with the hopeless, can’t make them love you enough to stay.

caretakerYou wonder who the dead girl is. You wonder where she comes from, where any of them come from, the ones who just . . . appear beside you when the sun goes down. You lower the girl in the unmarked grave, careful of her left wrist, sliced wide open, and deep, so deep, like she was digging for something. A way out, maybe—she found it. You wonder how much blood she left behind.

It doesn’t matter. A bathtub might be painted in blood, a razor in the sink, an apology upon the glass—but if there’s no body, then no one’s dead, not for sure, not for forever. There is always room to hope, for those who are left behind. This is what you can do for them. This is what you can do for the world.

It’s important work, you know. It’s a gift others can’t bring themselves to give—but you don’t understand how the dead find you, how they know to seek you out. You don’t understand why the bodies keep coming to you and you alone.

Another girl appears at your side before you finish burying the last one. There are rope burns around her broken neck.

It’s going to be a busy night.

You found it before you found her, submerged and naked in the bathtub:

I wish you didn’t have to find me. I wish there was someone to take my body away, hide it somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and you could just keep on going, pretend I was somewhere golden, catching everyone in the rye.

I’m sorry, she wrote. I’m sorry.

But is she sorry she left, or for what she left to you?

The sun is just beginning to rise as you finish burying the bodies. Six in all. Very nearly a record.

You wish you had another job. You wish you could help in some other way, become a detective, maybe, find clues, fight crime. Provide closure instead of preserving open wounds. You even wish the police would catch you, but the bodies, they wouldn’t stop. They’d just follow you to your cell, their cold flesh piling between your bed and the bars. If only you knew what ghost your mother had wished on, to make a prophecy of her regret.

You’d wish her back, if you knew what ghost. You’d wish she’d stayed for you.

When you sleep, you dream about stars falling. They drop down and down by the dozen, and you have to pick them up, bury them somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and then nobody will start crying; nobody will be afraid. Everyone will just stand together, holding hands, whispering that the stars could always come back, that they’re just traveling somewhere else now, some other, better, magical place.

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Carlie St. George is a Clarion West graduate whose work has appeared in Lightspeed, Shock Totem, and Strange Horizons. When she’s not busy incorporating her odd obsession with peanut butter sandwiches into even her most macabre and melancholy stories, she blogs extra-snarky movie reviews at mygeekblasphemy.com

Carlie St. George
Carlie St. George

 

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A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. Harrow

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowIsa died in a sudden suffocation of boiling blood and iron cinder in her mouth; she returned to herself wearing a blue cotton dress stained with fresh tobacco. She was younger and leaner, as she’d been when she first met Leslie Bell. Her skin shone dark and warm without the black dust of the mill ground into it.

After death, ghosts are sculpted like cold clay into the shapes they wore when they were most alive. Some people are taken awfully by surprise. Women whose whole lives were about their husbands and homes are, without warning, precisely as they were when they met a stranger’s eyes on a crowded streetcar. Men who had the kinds of careers that involved velvet-lined train cars and cigar smoke are suddenly nine years old, running their spectral fingers through the tall grasses and thinking of nothing at all.

Isa wasn’t surprised by the blue cotton dress. She had always known what she was about.

She came back to herself, with a feeling like hot wire being drawn through the die, in the rusty gravel on the west side of the Sparrows Point steel mill. She was disoriented for a moment, used to seeing the mill like a distant map below her from the top of Betty the blast furnace: the glowing arcs of welders and the arterial railways pumping coal and ore and sand and coke through the mill, and the distant rows of clapboard homes where her daughters waited for The Adventures of Superman to come on the radio at 5:15.

The foreman was coming up the road towards the mill with his white arms resting across the shoulders of two young, dark girls. Isa’s children. Oh, she hated the weight of that arm on her daughters’ perfect shoulders. Vesta—tall, brave Vesta, who fried eggs every morning for her little sister before school—walked like a person who had lost the trick of it. Effie’s oversize lunch pail banged against the side of her leg with every step. Their faces were like stones, or the faces of children who have lost their mother and father, and seen the red-hot maw of the world open up beneath their feet.

Isa already knew, but her daughters’ faces told her she was truly dead and could never hold her children again. The rage and pain and wishing-away of it swallowed her whole and she lost track of herself for a while.

Ghosts don’t linger, much. A few days of strolling through the world, which is much too loud and bright, then the dirt calls them down to trickle amongst the low, burrowing things to lose the boundaries of themselves in the rich smell of rot. Some stay, in the name of love or vengeance, but most people are pragmatists at heart, and lay themselves down to rest.

Isa lingered. Leslie used to call her mule-headed. Some parts of herself frayed and tattered when she died—the taste of grits with molasses on them, the way her daughter’s tight-braided hair felt beneath her palm—but not the mule-headedness.

weldThat first night she stayed so close to her daughters they felt a constant, humid chill down their necks. She walked beside them as they returned to their home, identical to a hundred other homes in Sparrows Point: a single, dirty box with a bare bulb dangling in the center, a leaky parlor stove in the corner. She touched the tears on Effie’s face with moth-wing fingers. She followed Vesta to the back stoop where, unwatched by her younger sister, she beat her fists on the stones and tore her tight braids lose. When her children finally closed their eyes in the center of the rope bed they shared, she lay down and slipped her arms around them. Effie shivered and burrowed further beneath the blankets.

Isa told herself she would only stay through that first terrible night. But dawn found her in the kitchen running frictionless fingers across the parlor stove, wanting badly to fall into the morning rhythm of coal and cooking. She pulled at the stove door, but she was a breeze blowing against a rusted-iron mountain, and it remained closed.

She pulled harder. The faint edges of her fingers frayed and spooled, half-slipping into the door, and she felt every humped weld and fractured seam in the parlor stove before it creaked obediently open.

She ripped away from it, reeling, and her other hand landed in the bowl of eggs on the counter. Beneath her weightless palms, the eggs rotted in their shells.

She did not touch anything else that morning, but huddled on a kitchen chair remembering the sweet slipping-away of her hands into the iron, feeling both fragile and dangerous.

Vesta rose and fixed breakfast, casting suspicious glances at the open stove and the faintly graying eggs. When her sister set a tin plate of grits in front of her, Effie burst into sudden, loud sobs.

“Effie. Effie, listen honey.” Vesta sounded so much like her mother that Isa’s hands shook. “Persephone.” The occult power of her full name stopped her.

Vesta sat and pulled her sister’s gangling legs into her lap, and spoke to her in a tone that no fifteen-year-old should have to use and no nine-year-old should have to hear. “Listen: Momma and Daddy are both dead, and it’s just us two girls left. But we can’t sit around and bawl about it, can we?” Effie’s expression said she didn’t see why not.

“No, we can’t,” Vesta continued. “Remember what Momma did when they came to tell us about Daddy? She made biscuits and swept the floor and combed our hair.” And then she’d gone to the common privy and vomited until she had nothing left in her but bile and despair. Some of the neighbor women fluttered as though they might say something, but she bared her teeth at them like a feral creature and they’d all remembered things they had to rush home and tend.

“That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pack our lunches and go to school and come home and make beans and a hambone for dinner.” And, because they were each trying so fiercely for the other, that’s what they did.

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowIsa stayed in the house. She couldn’t wash their dishes or fold their nightgowns, flung across the bed with the abandon of children who haven’t yet realized there’s no one left to pick up after them. But she could murmur to Effie’s cat—a slinking, ugly animal that only a nine-year-old could think was pretty, alternately named Lord Snowflake or Dustbucket depending on the quantity of coal grit in his fur. He wound himself around Isa’s ankles, purring with the conviction of a former stray. He didn’t seem to mind that she was dead. Cats have never seen the allure of the dualistic philosophies that plague humans, and some of our most cherished divisions—between right and wrong, life and death, rodents which are acceptable to kill and songbirds which are apparently not—seem rather arbitrary to them. She stroked him, and pulled her thoughts away from the dark, Southern earth that called her.

In the early afternoon, Isa went to the edge of the bay and waited for Leslie’s ghost to come home to her across the ocean. She wondered if war had changed him, and if he’d died with one of her letters in his breast pocket.

Yellow-gray steam boiled out of the mill and hung over the Liberty ships bobbing in the bay like deadly toys. She saw the ships the way a surgeon might see a person, looking through their steel skins to the skeletons of beams and welds running through their bodies. Isa wondered if the men who went to war saw the labor of their wives and sisters in the steel around them. She wondered if their labor was winning the war and saving their soldiers, the way the posters said, or if it was all just coal tossed into the ravenous belly of war.

Leslie did not come.

She went to the bay every afternoon for days or maybe weeks; time is a humped and lurching thing for ghosts. Effie’s cat followed her, genially acknowledging the other ghosts they passed. Isa recognized some of them easily, but many of them were unfamiliar to her as their past selves. Few people were at their best in Sparrows Point; most of them had traded away the smell of summer rain on the fields for the heat and stink and incredible noise of the mill town, on the promise of a regular paycheck. Most of them dreamed of going home.

Isa dreamed too, during the long nights when she lay weightless beside her daughters. But ghosts only dream of the past.

She dreamed of her first day in the mill, hired because the foreman liked the way her shoulders pushed against the seams of her dress and the unfashionable shortness of her hair. “Just about like hiring a man, isn’t it Sissy?”

He clapped her on the back and led her to a group of other new women, and spoke to them all about the war and the state of the nation and the sacrifices everyone had to make. He handed out aprons and warned them that long hair, fingernails, and jewelry were safety hazards. Isa touched her locket, a tarnished heart containing three ebony curls of hair, and tucked the chain beneath her collar.

At first, they put her in the black places below the ground, shoveling coal. She became a sweating, muscled beast in the center of a labyrinth, trying to shovel her way out of the dark. Her dreams of that time were scattered and clogged with coal dust.

Moving up to the top gang was rising out of the underworld into spring. “This here is Betty, the biggest blast furnace in the East.” The woman training her was short and gap-toothed, with dark rings around her eyes where her goggles sat. Later, Isa would find out that her name was Mary and she was from Lewisburg and her twin brother was a mess man on the USS West Virginia and they would be friends.

“Listen, this is the truth: Betty Grable might keep our boys happy when they’re over there with nothing but a couple of pin-ups, but our Betty is the one that saves their goddamn lives.” Isa could tell it was a worn joke, but Mary was proud of it.

She worked years on the top gang, climbing up and down Betty’s vast, many-tentacled body twice a day. They kept the vents clean and the charger rolling and they skimmed the flammable dust off every surface. They couldn’t speak to each other, with their faces buried in the rubber and metal of gas masks and the roar of the furnace deafening them, but they learned to read the language of each other’s bodies. When the wind blew the smog out over the bay and cleared the sky, when she and her team worked in a perfect dance of sinew and iron on top of the world, Isa was happy.

Often, Isa dreamed of Mary’s accident: Mary leaning over the hatch of the northernmost stove, hauling it open—a sheet of blue-white flame, Mary’s screams just audible over the mill’s grinding thunder. Mary came back to work with her left arm a black and pink mass of lumped scar. One-handed, she was only good as a tin-flopper or a record-keeper.

Isa met Mary for lunch on her first day back and neither of them said a word about it. The foreman strolled by and thumped Mary on the back and told her she was a real trooper, and left a Moon Pie on the bench “in case she was homesick.”

Mary unwrapped the pie from its filmy plastic. Then she crushed it, methodically, beneath her boot. She said, calmly, “Goddamn them all to hell, Isa. They want you to think we’re serving God and country—and an old white man who sure as hell isn’t any uncle of ours. But we’re just serving Mr. Eugene Grace and his ten thousand foremen, always patting us on the goddamn back and calling us his girls. And you want to know the part that eats me up at night? Soon as my brother comes home they’ll boot me and my bum arm right out and I’ll never see a fair wage or the top of Betty again.”

Isa didn’t say anything. “Ah, you already know it. I know you do. This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.”

The rest of her dreams were of Leslie, and the girls when they were young.

weldpull2Leslie did not come.

If Leslie could have come to her, he would have. It wasn’t something Isa believed about her husband, the way wives believe their husbands never look at other women or won’t drink up their paychecks, but something she knew about him and her and the shape of the thing between them. It was like knowing which way was north, or how much buttermilk to add to the biscuit dough.

She worried that death in battle was different, and Leslie’s ghost had been ripped asunder. But steel was war, too, and her death was surely no less violent and fiery and brave than his. Or maybe he’d gotten lost in the unfamiliar shapes of a foreign landscape.

But Leslie never got lost. If he could have come to her, he would have, and no oceans or continents could ever have stopped him. And so, no matter what those typewritten letters had said, shining up from the page like tiny, blackened bones, Isa knew her husband wasn’t dead.

The rush of elation and deepest sorrow almost unmade her—and oh, how sweetly the earth whispered to her, tempted her—but she snatched the fraying edges of herself and ran. She had always been long-legged, but now her steps ate up the ground in the weightless bounds of a doe. She passed children playing unattended on their stoops and laundry hung out to dry, absorbing the hot stink of coal smoke. Then she was outside the school, a sagging clapboard rectangle at the edge of the white neighborhood. Children poured down the steps.

Vesta held Effie’s hand in hers and did not look left or right. Isa fell in beside them, reaching reflexively to straighten their stiff collars and tuck away stray hairs before she stopped herself.

“Vesta and Persephone Bell?” The voice was clipped and northern. A white woman in a brown khaki dress stood in front of the girls. Everything from her square handbag to her narrow eyes said she had the authority of state behind her. Vesta regarded her with a flat, unimpressed stare which, if she hadn’t been fifteen years old, would have sliced right through the woman.

She only readjusted her round glasses. “Your parents were Leslie and Isa Bell, residents of Turner Station on Sparrows Point?” The past tense jarred Isa, but Vesta nodded.

“I’m Mrs. Patterson. I’m here to speak with you about your future now that your parents are at rest. Would you both please step back inside—”

Effie interrupted in a dangerous, chirpy tone that Isa knew very well. “Oh, Momma and Daddy aren’t resting anywhere, Miss Patty. Both their bodies got burned right up.” The woman blinked. “Well, we don’t know about Daddy—they said he was missing after a air raid. But Momma died cleaning the dust out from under the blast furnace. Couple hundred pounds of red-hot dust came down on her—poof. We didn’t get her body neither.”

Isa felt a sudden depth of sympathy for the state worker, whose mouth had fallen slightly open. In a certain mood, Effie could provoke preachers to cuss and sweet-natured dogs to bite. The woman gathered herself, and ushered Vesta and Effie back up the steps into the school. Isa drifted after them, a worried shadow in blue cotton.

The trio arranged themselves around a teacher’s boxy metal desk. The state worker explained to the girls that it had taken a while for their situation to become clear to the office, because their mother’s death wasn’t reported in a timely fashion. But they were legally orphans and couldn’t continue living on their own in company housing. They would come with her into the city to live as wards of the state. As a younger girl, Effie would be sent to St. Mary’s—

“Ma’am, it seems to me that some of your facts are wrong.” Vesta’s tone was mature, cool. “I turned eighteen in March, and I’m Effie’s next of kin, so we don’t need to go anywhere.” Vesta was tall and broad-shouldered like her mother, and a few hungry years in her childhood had taken the roundness out of her face and limbs. She passed easily for eighteen.

The woman squinted at her, and ruffled through her folders. “I’m quite sure we have your correct age down in our records, Miss Bell. And since when do eighteen-year-olds go to school?”

“Well, I never had a birth certificate because Momma had me at home on the kitchen floor. So I don’t know that you do have my correct age down in your records, unless you were in Pulaski County Kentucky in 1926.” Isa rested her insubstantial hand on Vesta’s shoulder. Vesta sat even straighter. “And I got held back in school. I didn’t learn real well.” Clever Vesta. It was never hard to convince white folk that you were stupid.

“Well.” Mrs. Patterson’s ruffling continued, increasingly random. “Well, that doesn’t mean you get to keep living in worker housing, does it? That’s for workers, isn’t it Miss Bell?”

“Yes, ma’am. I work at the mill four nights a week, sorting scrap.” The lies tripped off her tongue with military precision. “Now, I thank you kindly for your time this evening, Mrs. Patterson, but I’ve got to get home and start supper.” Vesta pulled Effie with her out the door and left Mrs. Patterson and her folders in the empty classroom.

It was hard, that night, for Isa to keep herself from spooling away. Leslie would come home soon and take care of their girls, and she was so very tired. But the grim line of Vesta’s jaw as she stalked out of the school and the stubborn way she held Effie’s hand kept Isa rooted, waiting. She made restless circles through the house, trailing her fingers across familiar objects, almost dissolving into the delicious warp and weft of Leslie’s favorite shirt folded on the dresser.

Vesta got out of bed when the whistle blew for the end of third shift. Effie curled into the warm place she left. Vesta pulled on her mother’s coveralls still stiff with grime and buttoned the collar below her chin. They were big on her, but not very. She tied a faded yellow kerchief around her head, scribbled a note on an old envelope, and left. Vesta paused to pet the cat curled on the stoop, but his eyes followed Isa’s spectral shadow hovering behind her. Vesta frowned over her shoulder, but saw nothing.

A sound had begun in Isa’s head like a claxon or a scream. She no longer had a pulse, but it beat in her temples as she followed Vesta along the rutted road to the mill. She joined the stream of workers pouring towards the punch clocks and pushed with them against the third shifters still trickling out. Isa was nothing but a chill along their backs and a flash of despair.

Vesta found the foreman’s office and slid inside.

“You’re Isa Bell’s oldest, aren’t you?” He was unsurprised. “What can I do for you?” His eyes sketched the strong outline of Vesta’s shoulders with something like greed. Isa stepped between him and her daughter. Neither of them noticed.

“Mr. Everton, I’d like to take my Momma’s place in the mill. If it’s open.”

“Well now, it might be. But not for anybody scared of hard work, or girls who can’t tough it out. We make steel, here, and steel is war.” There was something unshakable in his voice that reminded Isa of the preacher back home, except the foreman’s gods were profit and progress and the roar of the ceaseless mill.

“No little girls here, Mr. Everton. I’ll work.” He told her to show up for second shift and talk to a woman with a crippled arm on the main floor. Vesta left, while Isa’s ghost ripped through the foreman’s office like a furious, feeble tornado. A few papers fluttered gently off his desk. In a last flash of futile hate, she ran her hands over his stash of canned sardines and chocolate bars. They rotted in their wrappings.

This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.

Rage no longer possessed Isa, but perched heavily on her shoulder like a red-eyed crow. Plenty of young girls went to work when their fathers were at war and their mothers were dead or sick or busy drinking and trying to remember why they’d ever come to this terrible yellow-gray town on the bay. Plenty of girls did it, but not Vesta. Not Vesta, who had read her mother’s copy of Metamorphoses in fourth grade and whispered the stories to her sister beneath their quilts. Not Vesta, who cried when her father took the smaller portion of beans and gave her the last of the milk. Every woman in the mill was somebody’s child, but Vesta was Isa’s child.

weldpull3Isa would be damned if any child of hers would work in that mill. When Leslie came home, he’d find his two daughters whole and healthy and still in school, unscarred by the spatter of welders or the slower poisons of gas and steam. That was the reason for all of it.

Why else had Leslie and Isa gone to war with the world, trading away muscle and blood and the late-summer smell of tobacco curing in the barn—if not for their daughters? Hate and fear sent some people to the front lines and blast furnaces, but love sent far more.

The dirt had been waiting for Isa for a long while now, and it was growing impatient. It sang her songs about moss and loam and the sweetness of falling apart.

But Isa was listening for a different song, a song that groaned and grated in a thousand iron voices about never-ending shifts and coal trains that never stopped coming. She knew it very well, had heard it waking and sleeping since she left her home in Kentucky. It was the steel mill’s song, and Isa leaned into it. She pretended it was the good earth she sank into instead of a city of machines. She let herself fray and slip away, remembering the way her hand sank into the parlor stove. The blue cotton dress tattered and her long legs grew thin and faint and then she was nothing at all.

When she opened her eyes, she was the steel mill at Sparrows Point.

Her blood vessels were railways pumping coke and scrap. Her skull was made of brick offices and punch clocks, her lungs were heaving combustion stoves, her bones were ore. Her heart was Betty, beating and burning at the center of the machine, and across her skin, in every organ, ten thousand men and women toiled. Every skittering spark from every welder permeated her. Mary leaned against her on lunch break, struggling one-handed to unsnap her apron. The foreman clomped amongst the women in his heavy boots.

All ghosts operate under the same set of laws: They have a short time to exist, a voice that can’t be heard, and an uncompromising terminus. Much the same as the living. But laws last precisely as long as people follow them, and not a second longer. Every now and then, out of desperation or desire or pure mule-headedness, somebody stops following them. So Isa Bell didn’t go down into the clay and minerals beneath her feet. She became a steel mill.

Amid the grinding and roaring vastness of her body, there wasn’t much left of Isa-the-woman or Isa-the-mother. But there was just enough that she worried for the ten thousand people inside her, working in the soot and steam for their families. They would never leave, because Isa-the-mill was a city that never truly slept, a city that required an army of men and women every hour of every day, an unceasing thing.

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowSo, Isa-the-mill ceased. She had died once before, and was familiar with the seizing of organs and limbs required. All the hundreds and hundreds of motions of the mill stopped. Trains drifted to a halt in the middle of their lines with their engines gone cold and black. Molten slag ceased to flow from the casting holes and orange-hot metal turned dull and ashen in its vats. Crane loads of scrap hung suspended in the air as though they’d forgotten where they were headed.

People boiled out of her like ants from a nest. At first they shouted and swore, mostly at each other, but then a fearful bafflement settled over them. Cautiously they tried to rekindle fires and flipped switches on and off, but Isa stayed still and dark. It didn’t take very long before the company became aware that it was paying a smallish city of people to stand and stare. Everyone was crushed through the punch clock and sent home with instructions to listen for the whistle. While the foremen called their bosses and the bosses called in experts, Isa became the ghost-town of a mill.

She was tired the way only a ghost who has stayed too long is tired, and forgetting herself in the smell of coal and iron. But Isa remained a woman who got on with things, and knew if she simply drifted away the mill would reopen in a week with an apology to the Defense Department for missing their projected quota. Isa wanted it to never open again, even if it put her neighbors out of work, even if their families suffered long, hungry nights. Even if Sparrows Point fell into rot and decay without its mill.

And so she tore herself apart, bolt by bolt. She began delicately: Support beams cracked, welds fractured, mortar grew weak and powdery, as though the mill were failing a dozen safety inspections all at once. Then she gained momentum. Vats and stoves burst and poured out their lavas of molten tin and aluminum and pig iron. Fires caught in perfect synchrony across her body and she blew out her coal-dust breath to make them higher, hotter. Isa made of herself a grand pyre, for Mary and every man and woman swallowed whole since the first flame caught in the first engine.

At the very last, while the heat turned her body to slag and ash, she burst her own heart. Betty the blast furnace poured herself out in a cloud of blue sparks and poisonous gas. Isa hoped Vesta and Effie saw the orange glow as they sat together on the stoop, and knew their mother loved them.

Isa wasn’t anything, after that. She slept in her own ashes and hardly heard the boot-steps over her or the muttering of engineers and contractors that came to rebuild her only to find that the project was too expensive and none of their survey stakes stayed where they left them. Eventually they left her alone to rust. No one visited her except aimless children who picked through her for treasures (goggles with cracked lenses, a thousand scraps of metal warped in fantastical shapes, a burnt-black heart that might have been a locket), and sometimes an ugly cat who liked to lie on her sun-warmed iron. Mostly she rested, as weeds grew up through her bones and mice made homes in her skin.

And then one day, the faint reverberation of a footstep she knew as well as she knew her own heart rumbled through her skeleton.

With a groan of wind over an abandoned field, she woke up. Leslie limped through the knee-high ragweed, her husband home from war and looking for his wife without knowing he was looking. He wasn’t the way she remembered—war had sapped the humor from his face and mapped unkind lines around his mouth—but he was whole.

All the thistles and dandelions growing up through Isa bloomed at once, out of season, in a riotous bouquet. They turned their mauve and gold faces towards Leslie, beckoning.

He smiled the shadow of his crescent-moon grin. “You always were stubborn, Isa.”

Smoke and grief roughened his voice. He told Isa about their girls and how tall and smart they both were, and the job he had directing ships on the bay. He told her about the war, and how men died without a bullet ever coming close to them and then came home and walked around just like live people. He told her about the telegram printed on cheap paper he read in a French hospital bed that told him his wife was dead. And how he had still expected to see her, somehow, when he came home.

Then he sat down in the flowers and put his face in his hands and wept. Isa sipped the delicate salt of his tears through her dandelion petals. She thought some of it was for the loss of her, but mostly it was for himself, facing the endless labor of going on. She watched the tiny muscles moving across the backs of his large hands. She’d always loved his hands.

She began to unwind herself from the taproots and tangled wires that pierced her. It was hard work. It was baling hay all day after a long night up with the baby and no hope of sleep the next night. It was a double shift on an empty belly. But she’d never shied away from work. With the very last of her strength she pulled herself into a single shape.

She became again that moment when she was most alive, in the sweet green of a tobacco field in August. She’d straightened up from slicing the stalks and shaded her eyes and seen Leslie for the very first time, drawn by the early-evening sun like some ancient idol made of muscle and sweat and white teeth flashing. It wasn’t falling in love so much as falling into place, perfectly, and seeing the whole future in the shape of his shoulders and knowing it was full of hurt but knowing too that it was worth it.

For a stolen second so small that time might not notice its pockets were lighter, Leslie saw her as she had been in that field seventeen years ago. Young and broad-shouldered and taller than him, wearing a blue cotton dress stained with sweat.

Isa kissed him once, or perhaps a salty breeze blew across his cheek, and she was gone.

end_of_story

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

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow
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Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Anna Saves Them All by Seth DickinsonBlackbird’s pilot waits, vitrified.

Nine days since the ship closed around them and with the poison killing them hour by desperate hour, Anna decides she wants to see the alien once. Erik Wygaunt warns her, like Li Aixue before him: “Go in with an empty stomach.”

“I don’t mind snakes,” she says. Li’s scientists showed her the photos.

“No.” Erik has eyes like a winter fisherman’s borehole. “There’s something wrong with it. Like a—stain. You’ll understand.”

Everyone who’s seen it walks away afraid.

One of the soldiers guarding the hatch peeks inside as he opens it, and he shudders like he’s just been catheterized with a live wire. “Fuck,” he says, and spits on the deck, trying to expiate something, to purge his eyes.

Here goes, then:

Anna steps into the sleep chamber sidelong, eyes peeled, skin prickling, hands half-curled, ready to bolt. It’s a rush, an undeniable addiction. She loves to be about-to-fight.

The alien, frozen in glass.

No legs. Most of its body a long lash of tail, muscular, serpentine, a naga shape jacketed in scales firm and dark as stone arrowheads. Humanoid torso, slim, kinda ripped, arms shading down from sable to silver-white like long elegant gloves. Four fingers. Two opposed thumbs.

(It’s so—)

Where it should have a neck, a head, it flowers into snakes. Eight coiled snakes, bundled up, knotted tight. Sleeping. Anna imagines them at full extension, a committee of swan-necked vipers, a serpent coronet.

(So beautiful—)

“You okay?” one of the guards calls. “Just back out when it gets too bad.” And then, soothingly, when Anna doesn’t reply: “You’re okay. You’re okay. Just come to my voice, man.”

A frisson jolts Anna, not fear but awe, like she just hit the peak of a great song, like the big tracking shot at the climax of the movie when the score booms and everything feels ready for ruin or rebirth. She steps through the clutter of cameras and equipment to press a hand against the glass.

“Holy shit,” she hears one of the soldiers say. “Is she—dude, check the cameras, check her out.”

“Doesn’t she—fuck me, she doesn’t feel it—”

The alien crystal is cold, lucid, faintly yielding. Hi, Anna thinks, even though it’s ridiculous. Hi. Everyone’s afraid of you.

And the pilot’s voice comes back, husky, mature, precise, faintly sibilant, unambiguously female, speaking Kurdish like a born tongue: You and I. We have been marked.

The glass splits beneath her fingertips. Curls open in jagged fractal steps.

“Hey!” Anna shouts, backpedalling. “HEY!” She hits something, a camera or an instrument, and falls on her ass yelling as the alien rises above her, stretching on coiled loops of tail, serpents flowering, tiny white mouths tasting the air.

From the hatch: “Motherfucker—!”

The alien darts one neck in silent command and the hatch slams shut.

She never thought she’d come back to Kurdistan, land of meltwater and mountains and Sarin and loss.

Then the Blackbird object fell out of the sky, and Captain Erik Wygaunt, in charge of the American quick-response team (they thought it was a Chinese suborbital spaceplane) tapped her as their guide and translator. One fuckup led to another, and now here they are, locked into the red-lit machine viscera of a fallen starship, claustrophobic, poisoned, dying.

The other team members have their own terrors, of course—rational big-idea fears: where Blackbird came from, why it’s here, what kind of Christopher Columbus apocalypse it could trigger if it goes home, or if it doesn’t.

But Anna thinks about how she came so close to home, how she’ll never know if the thing she did was worth anything at all. That fills her with something jagged: anguish…or relief.

The thing she did:

Anna spoke to an alien once, a man who might have been born Homo sapiens but who wasn’t anything human. A beast in a red beret, servant of Ali Hassan al-Majid, who devised Al-Anfal at his cousin Saddam’s request.

He didn’t believe that she was human, either. He asked:

Are you an animal, daughter of Serhing Rekani?

“Anna. Anna, for God’s sake, talk to me.”

It towers over her, a dark starburst of scale and cord. One head fixes its eyes on her. The others circle warily or bend to preen shoulders and chest.

Not a hint of weakness in it, not a tremble of fatigue. Just the immovable dynamism of a predator flash-framed, a panther suspended mid-kill.

Anna fumbles for her radio. Her fingers answer her, just like they did last time she thought she was about to die. “Captain. Captain Wygaunt, I hear you. I’m okay.”

Good. Good. Fuck!” A bark of static. Erik gets angry at his own fear. “We’re here, Anna—we see it on the cameras.” Military discipline clips the emotion from his words. “Can you ascertain its intent?”

Another voice: Li Aixue, the mathematician. “She’s not experiencing it. Look at her. She doesn’t feel the effect.”

Anna gets her feet beneath her and rises into a cautious crouch. She’s afraid, exhilarated, alive with a totality she hasn’t felt for years. “Hey,” she calls, meeting the alien’s closest gaze, fixing on that head like it’s the whole of the thing. “You understand me.”

Voice comes from a place between the join of its necks. Synthesized, somehow, but there’s a truer speech behind it—sibilant, overlapping, in quadrophone stereo. An eight-headed hiss. “There are sixty-one people trapped in this ship,” it says. “You have a radio. You will speak to them for me.”

“Okay. I can do that.” It can talk. It knows about people and radios. Not too alien, right? Or smart enough to fake it. “They want to know what you—”

It rides over her. “I need human brain tissue. I have filled the atmosphere of this ship with an operant toxin. Tell the people to bring me ten of their number to eat, or I will let them all die.”

Oh.

She knows she ought to think about this: who comes across the stars to eat human brains? What kind of psychology meets a new species and says—do what I want, or I’ll kill the lot of you?

But Anna’s not that woman, and fuck if she’s going to listen to this again, this red-beret motherfucker playing his games, because it’s exactly the same, isn’t it? It’s the same fucking question the other alien asked her in the dust while the mules brayed and the children wept, and she hasn’t dreamed about that day for twenty-something years just to do it all again, no, no, not her. She is not that woman.

“Anna,” her radio squawks. Revulsion thick in Wygaunt’s voice, the alien’s everyone-but-Anna aura at work. “Did it answer? It’s speaking Kurdish. What did it say?”

“It wants ten of us,” she says, staring the alien down, imagining its fangs in her throat, her fists around its slender necks. “It’s going to eat their brains. If we don’t agree, it’s going to let us all die.”

And then, to the monster, arched above her in watchful regard, she says what she wanted to say last time, what she didn’t: “The hell we will.”

“All right. Acknowledged.” She can hear the unspoken resolve in Erik Wygaunt—I don’t bargain lives. Maybe he’s suspected, ever since Blackbird closed itself around them, that it would come to violence. “Professor Li will talk you through this. Hold on, Anna. We’re going to get the hatch open and get you out.”

“You are marked,” the alien says. It-–she?–-she touches her own chest, two long white fingers pressed between her scaled pectorals. “We carry the brand. I smell it on you. You have to understand.”

Anna’s courage has always been reckless, thoughtless. She stares down the viper nest, silent. It turns an extra head on her, as if puzzled; and then, after a moment, withdraws a few meters, tail curling through lazy, powerful strokes.

“You have to understand,” it repeats.

The man in the red beret chased them north, his jash guides tracking Anna’s whole village as they fled by truck and horse and mule. When it became clear they would not outrun the Iraqis and their traitor-Kurd accomplices, some of the peshmerga went back to try to hold them off.

Anna’s mother and father and older brother went with them. Later Anna would think, sometimes resentfully, sometimes in choked admiration: Serhing and Kaja loved their daughter, but they loved each other more.

The battle made a distant racket. After a while the clamor stopped. An Iraqi helicopter caught them columned in the open, its rotors a taunt.

When the trucks of soldiers surrounded them and began to dismount, Anna picked up a rock, looked for their commander, and began to walk towards the man in the red beret. “Anna!” old Aske hissed, children gathered in her skirts. “You will be shot!”

“We will all be shot,” she said, and kept walking.

“Anna.”

Li Aixue on the radio. Anna met her before Object Entry, liked her, felt a curious envy too–-a woman of air and light and high logic, a woman whose dreams were made of better stuff than dust and blood.

“Go ahead,” Anna says. The alien stands, quiescent, in the center of the chamber, clear membranes flickering over her sixteen small eyes. Occasionally she tastes the air.

“I need to verify that you’re not experiencing any nausea. Any sense of, ah, moral distress?”

“No.”

“Would you describe the organism as intrinsically evil?”

“What?” Memory of mother and firelight, of Zoroastrian myth, Yazidi fables.

Li hesitates, clearly feeling her way across untested ground. “Observers often report a sense of intuitive moral content.”

“I don’t know if I’m the woman to ask about that,” Anna says, and fights back an animal laugh. She’s never told anyone in America what she did, why the survivors put her up for adoption. Not her parents. Not Wygaunt.

“Understood. Anna, are you willing to ask the organism a few questions?”

“Sure,” Anna says, kind of taken with how smooth she sounds. Wygaunt told her she’d make a good soldier. He was wrong, but it felt nice. “You have audio?”

“We’re live on all the compartment cameras.”

Anna steps forward, waving. The alien reacts with a slow, coiling movement, a wary centering.

The first thing to roll off her tongue is coffee-shop banality. “What’s your name?”

Anna can hear Li’s breath tremble when the alien responds. “You will call me Ssrin.”

She relays this. “It has a name. It has a translator. It was prepared to meet us.” Li exhales raggedly. “Okay. Its mode of cognition seems relatable. Ask it about the nerve tissue.”

“I’m Anna.” She keeps her hands still, open, visible. The big philosophical ramifications of this moment, the historical weight, are mostly lost on her. Mom Forwell, always hunting positivity, liked to call her alive in the moment. “Why do you need our brains?”

“I came out of the glass because I thought I could speak to you. Because you have the mark.” The alien touches a bundle of her necks with one hand and strokes them, head to base, hissing long and low. “But you offer me weakness. You ask without leverage. Why should I tell you anything, Anna?”

“She thinks I’m an idiot,” Anna reports, fighting the urge to step back. “She thinks we’re all idiots.”

“Okay. I have a guess, going off game theory and intuition.” Dry paper sound of Li coughing. “It opened with a threat. Maybe it comes from somewhere where the default social behaviour is aggression. They assume malicious intent, so social interaction requires them to establish a detente.”

Looking at her, Anna can believe that. No doubt she’s a predator. “She thought we’d kill her?”

“Kill her and take her ship. Unless she had an insurance policy. Thus the poison.”

“Ssrin.” She tries the unfamiliar name, still riding the danger high, the tiger-cage thrill. “If we give you ten brains, you give us an antidote?”

The alien – does she chuckle? Is that rising choral hiss a mockery of human laughter, or the genuine article? “Yes,” Ssrin says. “You understand. Pick ten. The rest of you live.”

Anna doesn’t realize she’s doing it, doesn’t mean to do it. But she does it. She starts speaking the dream tongue, the blood language, the bargain: “Or maybe we kill you, we find the antidote ourselves, and we all live.”

The alien opens a single mouth in a slow yawn. Unhinges fangs beaded with small drops of milky venom.

“Ask it why it needs the nerve tissue,” Li repeats. Tremor of tension in her voice. Don’t antagonize it.”

“For the mission!” Ssrin snarls, as if the radio had spoken right to her. And then – whip-quick, thunderously strong – she smashes the cameras around her, tail lashing, and rips the radio from Anna’s hands.

The last thing Anna hears is Wygaunt’s voice: “We’re bringing up explosives, Anna, just hang on – “

White fingers click the radio off as if they’ve done it before. And Anna stands, ready, unafraid, coiled on the breathless edge of futile violence. She’s a broken woman. She never responds the right way.

But Ssrin doesn’t attack. “The mission,” she repeats, and then takes her bundled necks between her hands. Lets out a trembling divided breath. “God help me. God help me.”

alt=Anna threw her rock. It fell short. She knelt to find another and an Iraqi soldier grabbed her, dragged her forward to the man in the red beret who said in Arabic:

“Are you the daughter of Serhing Rekani? He spoke of you while he was dying. He said you would defy me.”

She choked on the stink of sweat and blood and gunshot but it was easier to be revolted than to let herself show fear, grief, horror. Father –

“I have always believed that unreasoning defiance is the mark of an animal.” The officer knelt, pistol loose in his right hand. “A human being reasons. A human being understands how to do what must be done. An animal kicks and spits even when offered a way out. Are you an animal, daughter of Serhing Rekani?”

“You’re the only one,” the alien says.

The chamber is sealed. No sound, no air, no radio from outside. Just Anna and the monster, arched in some kind of calisthenic, balanced on one coil of tail and reaching up to touch the ceiling. A pillar of black sinew.

In the dream, in the memory, Anna always talks to the monster. “The only one who’s not afraid of you?”

“No one can miss the cultratic brand.” One of Ssrin’s heads watches her, fangs bared. A filigree of metal along the teeth. “I have seen fear in the eyes of behemoth skylord and nihilist lana. I have seen it in the other humans. They all smell the brand. Except you.”

Anna doesn’t know what to ask, what to think, not the way Li Aixue the prodigy would. She just goes with her gut, with firelight fable logic. “We’re both bad people.”

“Evil. Evil people.”

The translation is toneless but somehow Anna hears conviction in the hiss behind it. Evil. Like in mother Kaja’s stories, like in the Shahnameh: an externality, a force.

“You can smell evil. Like it’s…real.”

“There are other systems than physics encrypted in our world. Detritus of an unfinished design meant to track and describe sentient minds. All higher technology exploits loopholes in the interface between physics and this poiesis.” One of Ssrin’s necks reaches for her, past her. She feels a tiny tongue tickle the back of her neck. Doesn’t shudder. “Your soldiers are outside.”

“They’ll try to kill you.”

“You won’t let them.”

What does her laugh sound like to the alien? An idiot sound, trapped in a single throat? “You think I can stop them?”

“You are their leader.”

“Their – ” Oh. She stops herself.

But the alien sees. “You’re not.” Ssrin’s probing head recoils as if burnt. “How can that be? You’re the ruthless one. The glass told me. I smelled it –

The translation cuts off. Ssrin makes a symphonic growl, an awful predator sound that pricks every fear in the ape genome, and the chamber lights go out.

Instant, complete darkness.

“Fuck,” Ssrin says, some alien epithet rendered banal by machine. “Not this! Not now! Fuck!

Anna loses it, in a personal Anna way, totally mis-wired. She jumps forward and tries to get Ssrin around the necks. But there’s a shattered camera in the way.

She’s still falling when Ssrin catches her by the throat.

“You love your family,” the monster in the red beret said, while little Anna struggled and spat. “But the sheep you slaughter love each other too. Love is not the mark of a human being. A human being knows how to do what must be done.”

His soldiers hauled prisoners from the truck, their heads wrapped in burlap sacks, their hands bound. Peshmerga from the village rear-guard.

Mother? Father? Brother Merdo? Could they be –

The officer, shaking his head like an ulama teaching law, drew her towards the kneeling captives. “Tachid here will cover you with his rifle. In a few moments, I am going to give you my pistol. If you aim it anywhere but where I tell you, Tachid will shoot you.”

He turned to one of his men. “How many animals have we penned down there?”

“A hundred and nine, sir.”

“Good. Anna Rekani, I am going to offer you a deal. A way to prove your humanity.”

“Do they care for you?” Ssrin hisses. “Will they bargain for your life?”

The alien’s fist is a vise. Anna suspects it could crush her windpipe and spine. But she’s not afraid. She knows the grip of monsters.

Maybe everyone else could see Ssrin was evil before she did. Maybe that’s why their guts turn when they look at the monster.

Maybe she can’t see it because it looks like a mirror.

“Something just went wrong,” Anna says. “The lights. You’re in trouble.”

Ssrin is silent. Anna figures Ssrin can probably think about ten times faster than she can, so the silence must really mean something. She plows on, probing blindly, improvising. “If you had a working ship, you wouldn’t be here trying to bargain. You wouldn’t have crashed at all. They’re going to blow that hatch open and kill you, and there’s nothing you can do.”

“You’ll die with me.”

“I don’t care,” Anna says, and God, it feels good to admit. “I deserve it.”

Ssrin sets her down with delicate precision. The darkness is absolute. Anna opens her arms, probing, afraid to take a step. After a moment she gets down on all fours and starts to crawl.

“I came so far,” Ssrin says. The translation is toneless and yet utterly desolate. “Bearing so many hopes. Your people are mad, Anna, to choose sure death over a simple bargain.”

“You’re an idiot. You didn’t have to poison anyone. We would’ve helped you.”

“‘The surest language is force.’ The first rule I ever learned. The principle that gave us empire.”

“Is that why you’re stained?”

“What?”

Anna finds a wall. Puts her back against it. She wants to be out of the way when Erik’s soldiers storm in. “The evil on you. The brand everyone sees. What did you do?”

“I was born with it.”

“That’s your crime?”

Ssrin’s voice comes from a lower place. Maybe she’s slumped against the wall too. “Only the first. I was a soldier, ascendant, in the service of empire. They could make diamond moons from the pressed ash of my victims. And I betrayed all that, Anna Earthborn. I turned on my people and my sister, turned on her great work, gambling everything-– hoping that in the end I could find absolution, wipe it all clean, liberate the galaxy, do one good thing—”

Anna starts at the sound: Ssrin hammering the wall, scale fists on alien alloy. “I cleaned the security system when I stole the ship! I disabled the lockdown! I was thorough!

The dead lights. It must be shipwide: Blackbird rebelling against its traitor captain.

Soft sounds from the hatch. Wygaunt’s men, making ready.

“You have the radio.” Anna doesn’t know why she’s trying to help, but no, no, that’s a lie, it’s – it’s sympathy, empathy, the boggling fact that across aeons of divergent evolution she can hear the machine rendition of a psychopathic serpent chorus and feel bad for her. “It’s not too late to surrender. Give them the antidote. They’ll be merciful.”

“Too much at stake.” Sinuous scale-on-scale sounds in the dark. Ssrin’s heads nipping at each other in anxious violence. “You’re too small to know how huge it is. The secret buried here, entombed in your minds by cosmological fluke. It is a key to the cipher of reality itself, a vulnerability in the computational substrate-–if my people find it, they will be gods. She will be God. I cannot risk surrender when the stakes are so high.”

“You’re going to kill us,” Anna realizes. Why would this fanged ultrapredator come so far without the ability to slaughter a few monkeys face-to-face? Erik’s soldiers are going to blow the hatch open and Ssrin will massacre them. Them and everyone else on the ship. “You didn’t need to wait for your gas to work-–you could’ve come out and murdered everyone. Why didn’t you—”

“I wanted to be good!” That rattle, that rasp, it could be menace, could be rage, but Anna hears pain and knows it and trembles with the closeness between them, the terrible congruence. “I’d spilled enough blood, done enough evil-–I smelled kinship on you, Anna, smelled calculation, thought you would make a bargain with me. But it always comes back to the fang. Always. The cosmos has no time for the weak.”

A hush, except for the ragged asynchronous breath of nine throats.

“What did you do?” Ssrin asks. “Tell me, before I kill you, and the rest.”

The officer in the red beret put the pistol into her small steady hands and pointed her towards the line of prisoners his men had pulled from the truck.

“This is the bargain,” he said. “Execute one of these captives, and I will spare one of your villagers. Execute two and I will spare ten. Execute three and I will spare twenty. Four, and I spare forty. Five, I spare eighty. All six, and I spare them all.”

Six against a hundred and nine. Anna could do figures. And that was all there was, all there could be. It seemed simple.

God save her and the six too.

“I will do it,” she said. She slid the safety off the pistol, just as father had shown her. She heard the noise of the soldier Tachid training his own weapon on her.

“Bring out the first one,” the officer said. “Let’s see if the girl is bluffing.”

They dragged a man in front of her and pulled the sack from his head. He was bruised and his face was swollen, but he was clearly Ronas, handsome darling of the dances, pursued by many but unbearably taken with a girl he could never have. Anna did not know who.

“What?” He blinked in groggy shock. “Ciwana, is that you?”

“Yes,” Anna said. “Be still.”

She held the pistol in her too-small hands and put him in the center of the sights. Dear God, she thought: if this is wrong please reach down your hand. You are quick and you are powerful, so if you can, please stop me.

She pulled the trigger. The pistol spoke. The recoil wrenched her arms in her sockets and she grunted, but it was the only sound she made.

Her childhood and her faith in God sprayed across the rocks with Ronas’ brains. His body fell away to the side. The officer made a soft clucking noise with his tongue. “You have earned a single life. Now, again.”

The next prisoner was her brother Merdo. The cut beneath his left eye went almost to the bone. “Anna! What are you doing?”

It’s not fair, she thought. He should have at least been last, so he would count for more.

But on the other side of her grief, in the shadow beneath it, she could feel the truth. Ronas, too, had been a brother, and a son, and she had not hesitated.

“Is our father dead?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes, they shot him in the lung, and dragged him away. I think he is dead.”

“And mother?”

“And mother too, I think, but I didn’t see. What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry, Merdo,” she said, “but I have to get to six if I’m going to save everyone.”

“Anna, wait!” he cried.

The recoil turned her halfway around and she nearly dropped the pistol. But she did not miss.

Silence behind her. She spoke through: “Please bring me the next one. I have to save them all.”

alt=“I’m sorry,” Ssrin says, although it sounds like she’s never even thought those words before. “Is the burden heavy? Will you be glad when I kill you?” And then a short, sharp rattle in her throats, a sob or a laugh: “I wonder if we have different ideas of comfort.”

Anna’s crying silently. She’s not ashamed, even though Ssrin can probably smell her tears. Some of it is gladness. “I’ve never talked about it,” she says. “Ah, God. I didn’t even-–didn’t even try to find another way. I just did what he said. Like I was one of the jash.”

“There was no other way,” Ssrin says. “He spoke with force. You did the right thing.”

“Yeah?” Anna knuckles her eyes. “Can you smell that, too?”

“Not yet.” Softly: “But I think you did right. For all that’s worth.”

The right of a murderer with a body count higher than all Earth’s summed tyrants.

Anna sits for a moment, thinking about the apocalypse. She’s not Li Aixue, prodigy. Not Erik Wygaunt with his mind for command. But she can put the pieces together.

“Ssrin,” she says. “Your people. You said you were trying to beat them. Are they coming for Earth?”

“Yes.”

It always comes back to the fang, the blood bargain, the man in the red beret.

“And when they get here–-if they’re hunting the same secret, this thing in our brains, this key-–what will they do?”

“Mass landings.” Ssrin’s voice flat edict. “Millions of your people rendered down to brain tissue and processed. They’ll use brute-force inference to deduce the cipher from the mark it leaves on matter-–the decay products that occur when the poiesis violates causal closure.”

And she says this next part with weary familiarity, with the guilt of old collusion: “When they have the key, they will destroy all life on Earth. The Exordia will not let the secret of secrets fall into the hands of their rivals.”

Too big to mean anything to Anna. Too huge for any response except abstract dismay. “Why us?”

“An accident of viral spread. There were other host species. Lost, though, during the Cessation Age.”

“But if you get the key first, if you get your brains and you find it, you can stop them.”

“No.” Vacuum-cold hiss. “Nothing can stop them.”

Of course not. Nobody ever stops the monsters.

Anna gets up on her haunches. “There has to be something. There has to be a way.” Some price to pay. Someone to aim the pistol at, knowing: you die, and the rest live. “If we give you the ten you asked for. If we give you more.”

“Nothing,” Ssrin says, “can save this world.”

“You’re going to find a way—”

“This is what happens now. I kill every human in my ship. I gather your brains as samples. I find a way to break the security lockdown before the Exordia fleet arrives, and I carry what I have to the rebellion.” Light kindles in the dark, a brief blue spark-–Ssrin, a medusa shadow, testing a sleek bladed weapon. “Maybe, if I bring them the encryption key, they can find a way to stop my people from cracking reality open and rewriting it. That’s all there is. The only way forward.”

It’s Anna’s whole world, the end of everything. The Columbian apocalypse everyone was afraid of. She should feel something.

But her wiring’s been broken for a long time now.

She sits in the dark and thinks about vast new bargains, and when she speaks again, her words come clotted in old blood. “When do your people get here?”

“A few days. Or a few hours. I must be gone by then.”

“Give me the radio,” Anna says.

Someone else makes the rules. Someone else says: you spend this blood, and you save that flesh.

But Anna makes the choice.

Ssrin throws her the radio. It bounces off Anna’s shoulder in the dark and falls into her lap. “Warn them I’m coming, if you want. You’ll only make them afraid before they die.”

“It’s not about that,” Anna says. The numbers are bigger here, but the calculation is the same. “You came here on a mission. You can still complete it, if you find a way to fix your ship. And what then? You save the universe? You’re the hero?”

“No one,” Ssrin says, “will ever call us heroes. Not you. Not I.”



Ssrin smelled it on her, through the glass. The ability to do this. What must be done.

Anna clicks the radio on. “Professor Li.”

“Anna! I’m here. Wygaunt’s men are about to-–” A soldier in the background snaps at her. “They’re, uh, standing by.”

“Tell Erik I’ve reached a deal with the alien. We’re going to assist it with repairs to its ship. We’re going to help it complete its mission. In exchange, we get the antidote.”

Glare dazzles Anna. Ssrin’s got a light mounted to one of her heads, snugged beneath the little jaw. Anna wants to giggle.

“That’s amazing, Anna.” Profound relief in Li Aixue’s voice. “Power’s off shipwide, we’re all worried about the air – I’ll tell Wygaunt right away.”

Anna puts the radio down on the deck between her knees. Her throat feels sick when she speaks. “Ssrin. Listen. They have at least one world-class mathematician. A few people from the NSA, too, codebreakers and computer guys. They can help you with the security lockdown. They can find you the brain tissue you need.”

Ancient, cold wariness in Ssrin’s voice. The weight of a billion murders. “Do you think you can deceive me?”

“No,” Anna says. “You smelled it on me. You know what I’m capable of. You were right: I understand.”

The arithmetic, this time around:

Earth is gone. Seven billion dead, no matter what. Ssrin’s people are coming and no god or dream of man can stop them.

So Anna tries to fight Ssrin, and Ssrin kills her and Erik Wygaunt and Li Aixue and everyone else on Blackbird, and maybe she gets what she’s after and escapes Earth before the hammer falls. But maybe not. Maybe Ssrin fails and her people win. Who dies then? Everything, she says. Everything that will ever be. The Zoroastrian Armageddon gone wrong, the final renovation of the universe cast in shadow. Angra Mainyu triumphant. The world devoured.

Or Anna helps Ssrin. Anna brokers a deal with Wygaunt and his soldiers: help the alien, and she’ll save our lives. She’ll do right by us.

Not that they’d go along with the deal if they saw what price they’d have to pay. If they saw the end coming.

Help Ssrin. Fix her ship. Forfeit Earth and everyone on it.

But the price has to be paid. The figures are clear. They can’t save the world: just help Ssrin save all the rest. A child could make the choice, if she were broken in the right ways.

It’s a little like destiny.

“You give us the antidote,” Anna husks, and has to stop to cough. “And we help you. We’ll make sure you have a chance.” The idea hits her like recoil: “I’ll go with you. Take us all with you. So a few of us can live.”

“You’ll burden me. I would be wise to kill you all.”

Anna smiles, a rictus the alien might understand: bare teeth, wide eyes, fear sweat. “But this is the right thing to do, Ssrin.”

“They’ll panic when you tell them. They will see the end of their world rising, and they will lash out.”

“I’m not going to tell them,” Anna says, and puts her head between her knees. Curls up like a nautilus, shutting out the world: even though it leaves her alone with the thing she hates most.

She could warn them, Wygaunt and Li and the rest. Tell them about the alien fleet on its way. And they’d look for a way out, a nuclear attack or a computer virus, some act of technological heroism. But they won’t stop the aliens, any more than the peshmerga could stop the Iraqis. So she’ll be silent, and save as many as she can.

She feels Ssrin’s hands, cold, smooth: on her brow, her shoulder, and then, the gesture stiff but still strong, killing strength held in check, Ssrin’s arm wrapped around her. Held for a moment (and Anna takes it as comfort) before Ssrin tugs her to her feet.

Anna clings to her, mistrusting her knees. “Where’s the antidote?”

“Here,” Ssrin murmurs. The fangs of her fourth head prick Anna’s neck, a gentle puncture, a bloom of warmth. “A special gland. I keep it close.”

The hatch geysers light and fire: a ring of thermite, burning all around the rim, cutting through, the way it hadn’t cut the outer hull. Wygaunt’s soldiers pin them in the glare of lasers and tactical lights, shouting down, down, get down!

Anna holds up her hands and steps between them and Ssrin. Two serpents peer over her shoulders. The soldiers flinch.

“Stop,” she says. “I’m okay, I’m okay. She’s on our side.”

When the medics and the soldiers leave, when Erik and his wary guard take Ssrin to the ship’s command, Anna finds herself alone with the prodigy.

“Strange to think it’s almost over.” Li Aixue shakes her head and smiles ruefully. “We found a starship. I thought maybe I’d get to see the stars.”

“You will,” Anna chokes. “We’re all going to see-–such things.”

“Anna.” Li touches her shoulder gingerly. She’s shy, Anna realizes, and it surprises her: she’s always seen Li as such a titan. “What’s wrong?”

Someone in the direction of the command center shouts in excitement. The lights snap back on. Blackbird, waking up again. The bargain underway.

Ssrin’s people will come. The world will burn. Everyone except the crew of Blackbird, the ones Anna saved.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Anna says, though she feels Li’s offered arm through phantom scales, though she tastes old blood and new poison in the place beneath her tongue. “I did the right thing.” And, raising her eyes to Li’s: “I did the right thing.”

It was harder last time.

end_of_story

Seth Dickinson’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog, Strange Horizons, and more. He is a writer at Bungie Studios, an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. His first novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, will be published by Tor Books in fall 2015.

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Ellie and Jim vs. Tony “The Nose” by Eden Robins

The afterlife resembles nothing so much as an old-fashioned automat. Just this long, narrow, possibly endless room. One wall is lined with shining chrome drawers and those tiny, cloudy windows where you can catch glimpses of sandwiches with wilted lettuce and sometimes more grotesque things, like gall bladders. A big oaf dressed like a 1920s mobster looms over the cash register and is forever giving you the stink-eye, like you might try to jimmy your way into the drawers and steal his gall bladders. The automat only takes quarters and wouldn’t you know it, I forgot my purse.

The place reeks of stale cigarette smoke and that nose-tingling odor of cleaning products. The waitresses are always wiping down the chrome drawers and the square Formica tables that dot the length of the long hallway, so that explains the cleaning products, but the cigarette smell is some kind of mystery from the beyond. I don’t know what to think about the waitresses. Even if you walk right up to them, even if you stand nose-to-nose and tit-to-tit with them, they won’t answer a simple question, such as, say, “Is this heaven or hell?”

Jim and I are the oldest people here, which is honestly not as surprising as the fact that we are also the only people here. Stuck, apparently, in our own personal afterlife.

I keep glancing up at the cat-shaped clock on the wall, even though I know it always says 4:15. The clock’s broken, or maybe time’s just broken, what the hell do I know? We’re sitting at “our table,” making pyramids out of the creamers, and I catch Jim peeking at the bulletin board that hangs next to the mobster’s cash register.

“Jim,” I say, “nobody’s ever going to post anything.”

“They did that one time,” he says. I give him a look. The “one time” he’s talking about, all the paper said was Made ya look! where the O’s were a pair of googly eyes. Meanwhile the mobster made a noise through his nose that might have been a chuckle. Very funny.

So Jim says for the thousandth time that he’s going to go ask the mobster guy for a couple quarters, just to see what’ll happen, and as much as I’m starved for something to do, someone else to talk to, I tell him I think it’s a bad idea.

“What if I just ask him for a deck of cards?” Jim asks. He’s terrible at leisure time. When we were alive he always had something scheduled: work, intramural softball, poker nights, jam sessions, teaching English to Somali immigrants.

“We can’t be the only ones dying of boredom here,” he says. “Someone’s bound to start a club or something. Hell I’d even learn how to play Mah Jongg, fucking Scribbage. I don’t care.”

“I think it’s pronounced ‘Cribbage,'” I say.

“Whatever,” he says.

A whole life of camaraderie, of working together through financial troubles, and children, and just the general shit that life lobs at you, and it’s not until we’re dead that the specter of a divorce looms.

“Why don’t you post something?” I say.

“Sure, Ellie,” he says. “Got a pen?”

When you love someone, you spend a whole lot of time wondering what the hell you’re going to do if they die before you do. You imagine the end of life to be a race to see who can die first. Who wants to be left alone? Who wants to be that feeble, hunched raisin, eyes watery, always stuck in the back of their own head somewhere, high on the hallucinogen of their own memories? Who wants their flimsy crepe-paper hand patted by long-suffering adult children? The young have the controlling shares in pretending they’ll never be old. It’s incredibly annoying.

Jim had his first heart attack when we were on what was supposed to be a relaxing beach vacation. But of course, sitting on a beach is Jim’s idea of hell, so instead he took surfing lessons until his heart gave out. I watched them drag him out of the ocean, and I told him I’d fucking kill him myself if he died before we could retire. I told him to knock it off with the Type A stuff. I also ordered arsenic off the Internet because hell if I was suddenly going to be one of those old people that everyone pities but no one talks to.

Meanwhile, my hand was patted. Suddenly we’re a family of prudish Victorians: handkerchiefs wringing, eyelashes fluttering, as many euphemisms for death as Eskimos have words for snow. These are the times when you want to dropkick your children, not when they thrash and scream as toddlers, but when adulthood teaches them to mask their judgment as benevolence. I thought about poisoning them too, I really did. Mea fucking culpa.

Jim had a second heart attack, a month before retirement, that moron, with the dramatic backdrop of a buzzing fluorescent light and the dull hum of an EEG gone flatline. The kids wept and I gulped down three pills.

“Valium,” I lied, when they glared bolts of uh oh at each other. “Give me a break.”

Ten minutes later, the arsenic did that thing it does. I slumped over in my rolly chair, which, without the stability of my living muscles holding it in place, rolled out from under me, tossing me skull-first onto the linoleum.

My wallet, practically bursting with quarters, sat uselessly in my purse.

Jim squints down the long hallway of the automat, and I know what he’s going to say. I can see him trying to figure out how to frame it in a way I might agree to, and then giving up.

“We should see what’s down there,” he says. “Probably all the people are in another room or something.”

“Don’t you dare,” I’ve got more respect for the enormity of the divine than Jim does. “You go down there and I’ll never see you again.”

He looks hurt. “You won’t come with me?”

I look at the table we’re sitting at. I’m used to it. There’s a bleach spot under the condiment hopper. The faded design on the top looks a little like boomerangs, in that way 1950s stuff does. I’m used to the glares of the mobster cashier. And I am so annoyed that, even now that we’re fucking dead, even now Jim can’t relax.

“I just, I know what we’ve got here,” I say. “This is a pretty good table.”

“Pretty good for what, exactly?” he asks.

“Who knows what’s down there,” I say. “Probably more of the same anyway.”

But Jim keeps looking over his shoulder with the longing of the man I know so well, the man who’s never satisfied, ever.

A waitress whips a rag around and around our table. Despite the ample cleavage that dips and jiggles with each swipe, she’s surprisingly sexless. It’s like her tits are tired of being tits. Like they’d rather be something a little less enticing, elbows or noses maybe. I can relate.

Jim waves a hand in front of her face and I sigh. We’ve tried this. We’ve tried touching them, screaming at them, waving at them. They can’t see us, or hear us, or feel us. Or they don’t want to. He just won’t give up.

“Let it go, Jim,” I say.

But then, in a move so shocking I actually gasp, Jim grabs the waitress’s tit and squeezes. She doesn’t slap him, or yelp, or scream; for the first time since we’ve been here, the first fucking time, she stops wiping.

“Jim!” I say. Reflex. I’m not actually upset, just surprised.

“What the heck?” says the waitress, though her lips don’t move. “Is there somebody here?” Jim and I look at each other, elated.

“You did it!” I said. “What did you do?”

The waitress rips open the bodice of her dress, just like they do in the novels, and she’s not wearing a bra. This doesn’t scandalize me as much as the fact that her breasts are eyeballs, with lashes and eye shadow and everything. They look surprised, I think.

“Whoa,” the waitress says via the tiny mouth of her navel. “Who are you?”

Not that I have much time to consider all this. The mobster, with surprising litheness for such a big guy, hops over the counter and whacks Jim over the head with a sock full of what I can only assume are quarters.

“Shame on youse,” the mobster says, “This is a family establishment.”

gen_illo_top

I think we should call the mobster “Tony,” but Jim thinks he needs something more abstract, like “The Nose.” Jim’s basic idea is that The Nose is God, which is a bit too obvious and Old Testament for my taste. My theory is more like, what we see in death is just a projection of our own minds. I like my theory better because it means we have the power to change things. We spend some time trying to change the automat into something else, our old living room, for example. Nothing doing. Not even a ripple in the old space-time continuum.

“This should work,” I say.

“But automats were before our time,” says Jim. “How could we have created something we’ve never actually seen?”

“We’ve seen them in movies,” I say.

“No, but on Earth?”

This is another point of contention. “On Earth,” he’s always saying. As though in death we’re floating around in space somewhere.

“It just doesn’t feel like Earth,” he says, knocking on the Formica table as though it might sound different, out here in space or whatever.

I’m thinking about this in particular-–the On Earth vs. In Space debate-–when Jim disappears after the sock-of-quarters beating, and so does the automat.

The space around me, everywhere, becomes thick and purplish and howls with wind. I seem to be dangling rather than falling, but it’s really hard to say. My sense of distance and perspective have collapsed. There is an absence of smell, which is not the same thing as odorless, though I can’t really explain why. I am neither cold nor warm but just kind of uncomfortable, and I can’t tell if I’m looking at an expansive space or a very small room. My arms feel shackled, but when I look, there’s nothing shackling them. I am alone.

“Jim?” I say, and my voice sounds tiny and pathetic in my ears.

“I gave you mooks everything,” says a voice with what sounds like a very heavy Chicago accent.

“Tony?” I ask. “Is that you?”

“What can I say, I’m a romantic. Your story moved me,” Tony says. “The two of youse—together to the very end. So what do I do? I give you the best table in the house. I let you stay together, which I never do for nobody. And this is the thanks I get. You sumsabitches had to go ahead and pull a stunt like that.”

“You can’t really be serious with this gangster god routine, right?” I say. It’s a bold stance to take, given my precarious position, but ridiculous is ridiculous. I didn’t get to be a junior high teacher for 35 years and mother of three by taking shit from bullies. “What did we ever do to you?”

“What did you do?” Tony says. “What did you do? Oh that’s rich.”

“Where is Jim?” My voice shakes. It sounds tiny and weak and I hate it. “What did you do with him?”

He laughed, a low, growling, mirthless chuckle. “You can’t see him. You can’t see any of them, but they’re all around you. Everyone who has departed the mortal coil, god rest their fucked up souls. He’s right here widdus, girlie. Only, you know, ‘On Earth.'” He snorts. Everything’s a joke to this guy.

“Let me guess,” I say. “I’m In Space?”

“Well look around you, sweet tits. It ain’t fuckin’ Miami Beach.”

“You weren’t exactly clear about the rules of the afterlife automat, you know? We didn’t mean any harm. It’s human nature to be curious. That can’t be a surprise, to you of all people,” I say.

“People? Don’t you fucking call me ‘people,'” Tony says. “And you ain’t got a curious bone in your cold dead body.”

“So what do you want from me? If I didn’t do anything, why am I here?” I ask.

“I figured you wanted a change of scenery,” he says with a chuckle.

“Well you figured wrong,” I say. I take a deep breath and think about courage. “What do I need to do to get Jim back?”

That gravelly chuckle again. “You so sure you want him back? Looked to me like you two wasn’t getting along so good. Your fella had the wandering eye, undressing waitresses like that. Always on the lookout for somethin’ better. Looked like splitsville to me. Maybe I did you clowns a favor.”

He’s messing with me, but it still hurts. “It wasn’t like that and you know it. He figured something out,” I say, warming to the idea. “Some little piece of the mystery. And you shut him down. And anyway, Jim and I have been through a lot. A lifetime of a lot. We won’t abandon each other now.” I know I shouldn’t explain myself. You never explain yourself to bullies. But maybe I needed to explain myself to myself.

“Oh a lifetime, you say?” Tony laughs. “A whole lifetime? Why, howsoever did you manage? You fucking people.”

I try not to think about how we’ve drifted apart since death. We’ve drifted apart before. When the kids were babies, you know, you spend so much time making sure they don’t choke or drown, it’s almost like a curtain drops around you and them and you can’t see anything outside it. Then there was my affair-–I don’t feel bad about it anymore, everything’s part of a life, good and bad. Then work or grief or just the idiocy of the every day. You wax and wane with those you love. It’s inevitable.

The sound of slow clapping. “Touching. Really. I’m touched.”

“Leave me a little bit of privacy, please. My thoughts are still mine,” I say. I wiggle my fingers a bit in their shackles. Can I really be shackled? I mean, I have a body, but not in the traditional sense. And-–am I really In Space? I think of the cat clock, how maybe the clock itself is fine but time is broken—like, capital-T Time—and I wonder if the same is true about capital-S Space. If it really is broken, if death means you can squeeze through the cracks in reality…well maybe I really can change things. The thought is exciting, and I struggle to keep my mind blank so he can’t hear me.

“I can hear you,” he says.

“Can you just…knock it off for a second?” I ask. “I’m new to this. I’m trying to understand.”

“Lemme spell it out for you,” The Nose says. He really is more of a The Nose than a Tony, now that we’ve had a chance to talk. “You fucked up. We don’t go around trying to dig up each other’s secrets. I leave you alone, you leave me and my waitresses and my clock and my goddamned automat alone.

“But you just couldn’t do that, could you? You had to fuck everything up. You just had to meddle with my shit.”

gen_illo_bot

This is too much. “Would it have killed you to give us a quarter? What the hell are we supposed to do, drink mustard for eternity?”

“I want you to listen very carefully, sweet tits,” he says. “I. Don’t. Owe. You. Shit.”

Death may be infinite, but hope is a fragile, mortal thing.

I am rich with time; I’m a time billionaire. But what if it’s impossible to find Jim? Impossibility exists outside of time. Maybe The Nose really is so pissed about what Jim did that he’s made us invisible to each other forever. But why punish me? I may not have known the rules, but I played it safe.

The worst thought of all: maybe I played it so safe that Jim has moved on. Maybe he’s relieved to be alone. Left alone to pursue death with the tireless curiosity that I never let him fully express in life. And, you know? Maybe I’m relieved that he’s not bugging me about it anymore. Maybe it’s time to let him go too. This thought is lonelier than the entire expanse of swirling purple space.

But I can’t let myself sink into this eternal loneliness. I think about the good times—I pretend Jim and I are on vacation. I pretend we’re on a beach vacation–-an actual beach vacation and not a “doing things” vacation. I pretend I’m reading a book, holding my shackled hands out in front of my face, and telling myself a story.

So I tell myself a story that we’re in Miami Beach, lying on the sand. Ever since The Nose mentioned Miami Beach, I guess I just can’t get it out of my head-–it was where Jim and I took our last vacation together, the one with the heart attack. Only, I can’t picture Jim lying on the sand. It’s my goddamned imagination and I can’t make him lie on the goddamned beach. So fine. He’s learning how to surf.

So Jim’s there, taking surfing lessons, and he’s the oldest one there, by far. He doesn’t have the muscle tone of the young guys, but he’s got the strength and the endurance, and they’re all red-faced and pissed when he’s the first to stand on his board, the first to ride a wave. He keeps falling-–and every time he falls, I’m afraid he’s having another heart attack, but no, he’s just a beginner, and beginners fall. He keeps getting back up, trying again. I can’t take my eyes off him. He’s on his board long after the young guys head back to the hotel to drink and get girls. He’s out there longer than the pros. He’s out there until the wind picks up and the sky goes purple and you can’t tell where the sea ends and the sky begins.

And then I realize: We’ve found each other. In the great expanse of eternity, somehow, he’s imagining exactly what I’m imagining. I see a grin spread across his face, and suddenly he’s lying down on his surfboard like it’s no big deal, like it’s a lounge chair on the beach. Suddenly it is a lounge chair, and there’s a paperback book in his hands.

My heart is racing. I’m gripping a surfboard and I’m terrified that I’ll drown and that I’ll look like an idiot, in that order. I throw myself into the ocean, I feel it lapping at my toes, splashing my face. I strain my ears-–the waves, hear the waves, goddammit, I’ve got to hear them.

At first the rumble is so low it’s almost the negative of sound. But it builds and builds, it thunders toward me, the huge wave, bigger than a beginner should be riding, much too big for me to be lying in the path of.

I’m sputtering and flailing, trying to paddle out of the wave, but it’s too late, it’s too big, it’s coming for me. And in the moment when I’m sure it’s over, that I’ve failed, that I was foolish to even try…I see him, about to be smothered by the same wave, floating calmly in his lounge chair—the man I love. He is reading one of my steamy summer romances. I whoop for joy and in so doing, the board slips out of my hands. It shoots out from the under me and smacks into Jim, knocking him off the lounge chair just as the wave smothers him. I go under too, my mouth still open and whooping and full of the sea.

“Five seconds,” I say. “You’ve got to squirt mustard in your mouth for five seconds and then swallow or it doesn’t count.”

He makes a face. “Couldn’t we start with the ketchup? I can’t just go from zero to mustard.”

“Sorry Charlie. You lose the bet, you do the time.”

We’re soaking wet. Drenched. Our fingers wrinkled like prunes. That seems to be the punishment for what we’ve done, for rending space and time and bending it to our will. It feels wicked, the way I imagine Einstein must have felt. It’s also a fairly minor punishment for the crime, which makes me think maybe we’ve gained The Nose’s respect, just a little. It keeps the waitresses busy too, always wiping up the droplets of water we leak onto the table.

We get our table back, and we make a big show of saying how lucky we are to get the best table in the house. It pays to be polite around here. And on the bulletin board, now, is a single piece of paper, with the heading Rules of the Afterlife Automat.

You give a little, you get a little. That’s Rule #3.

Jim chugs the mustard. I count to five. He chokes and sputters. His face purples, then goes back to normal. He wipes yellow from his mouth. I give him a small round of applause.

“New bet,” he says, grinning. “My turn.”

“Oh yeah? What are the stakes?” I ask.

He puts on his thinking face, but I interrupt. “Wait,” I say. “If you win, I’ll go exploring with you.” I point down the long disappearing corridor.

He frowns. “But…the table,” he says. “We might lose it.” He’s not talking about the table; we both know that. We have a fragile truce with the mysteries of the beyond. He looks down the long hallway, then back at me. “And what about Rule #1?” he asks. “‘Don’t stick your nose into other people’s business?'”

I grab his wrinkled, wet hand. “Fuck it,” I say.

Heavy footsteps behind us. Mouth breathing. We look up to see the broad, lumpy face of The Nose, cinched at the neck with a shiny white tie.

His nostrils are fathomless, swirling black holes.

“If you get lost, just give us a ring,” The Nose says. “Plenty of payphones.” He tosses a quarter onto the table. It spins, spins, spins.

fin

Interview with Eden Robins | Buy Issue #20 | Subscribe to Shimmer

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. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

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

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

“Sheriff,” she said.

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

“Is there something I can help you with?”

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

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

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

“One for sorrow,” Elyse said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Startled, she looked up.

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

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

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

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

My dear Elyse,

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

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

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

Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not mine.”

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

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

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

He paused halfway to turning. “Linden.”

“You’ll bring the birds?”

“When I find them.”

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

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

Elyse said, “Only men.”

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

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

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

Elyse,

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

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

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

Be safe and know I am trying to reach you.

Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Linden,” she said.

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

“Everywhere.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The letters?”

“The birds. The whole damn uncanny.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved Elyse,

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

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

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

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

Peter

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

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

Elyse,

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

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

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

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

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

Elyse,

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

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

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

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

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

It was still raining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not much of a storm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Put to good use.”

“I remember them having less of a kick.”

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

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

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

She didn’t know how to answer that statement.

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

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

“And you?”

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

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

“I knew you might have been.”

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

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

“They don’t want him coming back.”

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

“No,” the sheriff said.

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

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

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

“It’s against the law.”

“I promise not to look.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” he said.

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

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

Elyse,

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

Elyse

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

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

fin

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