Tag Archives: forest

Trees Struck by Lightning Burning From the Inside Out, by Emily Lundgren

It is sweet and fitting to die with one’s pack under the full moon, but the sky is clouded by the city lights: orange and yellow and red like fire. Roque is running. Like a cracked whip, without sense. Under a sliver of jagged sound, under the leering fray of glossy towers, he smells a dog without a leash, the sharp of silvered bolts. He sees a woman with a cardboard sign reading something-something about the world, who catches his eye, whose own eyes widen, whose mouth opens and makes a howling noise: something-something about wolves! wolves! The road towards dawn outstretches before him, choking on cars and steam and fur and bone. Roque is running, running. His paws thump in tandem with the code of his heart, and he transforms.

I shit you not, the den was in this underground shithole out by the train tracks. Outside, on the gate leading to it, there was an honest-to-god sign that said NO DUMPING, but as soon as we crossed beyond the gate we had to navigate piles of actual junk. Old coils of bedspring, plastic toys, a sagging couch, at least five ancient television sets, a mountain of cassettes. On the gravel, spools of black videotape were tangled in neatly arranged piles, like someone decided to sit there and chew apart all the plastic. The den itself was past all that shit, in the rubble of an enclave painted with the words FAIR IS FOUL & FOUL IS FAIR FUCKERS. Some real nice digs.

There shouldn’t be a fire pit. I know we’re all thinking it—the wild ones, they’re not supposed to have thumbs, you know? After the carnage, some of us stand near the arrangement of cinderblocks that circle the fire pit like sad-ass lawn chairs. Our crossbows hang limp in our hands. Someone’s phone goes off but we don’t even pick it up. This fire pit is fucking weird, none of us says just yet. It looks like a stump, the midsection carved in a big X with raw pulsing pinks and reds at its heart, peeling the core back white. The stump sits in a charred indentation in the ground, and it reminds me of one summer when lightning struck a tree on the farm and ate it from the inside out. Once in a lifetime, tops.

Behind us, snaking from beneath the circular enclave that might’ve once had something to do with trains, there’s a root-path leading crooked into the den. If we listen, which we all do, we can hear shouting. Will and the rest of us are still down there, probably counting up the corpses. They didn’t really fight us when we found them, and I know we’re all sort of disappointed. They howled and cried and clawed at the dirt but their den was nothing but damp earth and dead ends. Wolves used to live in caves or in the woods, but shit, where can you find places like that anymore? From the earth’s belly, I hear Will start up about skinning their hides.

Someone’s phone goes off and this time it gets answered. This shakes us apart, gets us moving. So what if they carved a stump and made a fire and sat here at night watching it with their dumb eyes? We round the perimeter, keep watch. Another of us takes out his phone, too, and snaps a few pictures. “This fire pit is fucking weird,” he’s the first to say. “I’m putting this thing on Instagram.” I shrug. I got rid of all that shit after my parents died. Facebook before the funeral—then afterwards, Twitter, then Tumblr, even Snapchat, and definitely my Grindr profile. Online, time vaults would lurch open at the stupidest times. I’d be checking my phone in bed and then next thing I knew, my Ma’s face would peer up at me and I’d go to her profile, which I should’ve deleted a long time ago, but never did. I’d reread the RIPs, the thoughts and prayers, and I guess there was probably a way to disable all that shit, like unfollow her, but I never did. I just shut it all down. Now I only talk to fellow hunters, I guess.

Growing up, I didn’t give a single fuck about wolves and neither did my parents. But even in Big Sky Country they’d crop up, and sure, we had a coalition in town meant to protect us and all that shit, but for a long time, the worst you’d hear about was someone’s raided chicken coop or a missing cow or two. There’d be rumors, or whatever, about a family that went missing, but that was always on rez land and the coalition would say well, you know, that’s out of our state jurisdiction, and no one wants us out there anyway, and that was true, so that was that.

The most controversial law didn’t get passed until around the time I was born because it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the wolves started smartening up. There was the Wolf Man, sure, and maybe a few like him in the Middle Ages, so now people are figuring hey, that might explain a lot—but it didn’t happen in droves until much later, and pretty soon, for a few days out of every month, wolves could walk and make sounds and use thumbs. Then they got to thinking, which was when the real trouble started because it pried open a big can of fucking worms, so it was all “civil rights” this and that. Anyway, even the human-ones are born wolves, so this law passed in maybe 1996 and it prohibited hunting them unless they’re wild. The ones that can transform are tagged—assimilated into our Great Fucking Society.

I know this guy who used to hunt with our coalition who dated a tagged one once, but it was real hard seeing as they couldn’t be together most of the time, and then it got to the point where the few days out of the month they could be together, they mostly argued about his job. But all of what we do’s legal, you know, legit. Except I guess that wasn’t the problem.

She was very sophisticated and all that shit. She even had a YouTube channel, I think.

But then even he got her to admit wild wolves don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone but their own packs and they give into their hunger real easy, she even said she didn’t like running with them—but come on, she’d said, it’s still kind of fucked, what you guys do, isn’t it? So then this guy, he sat her down, told her all our stories. He saved mine for last, Little Arlo and His Daddy’s .22 against the Big Bad Wild Wolves. I watched them tear Ma and Pa to shreds. They smelled like piss and their fangs were long and yellowy and there wasn’t anything human about them. Whenever I talk about it, my chest starts feeling numb and the numbness stretches into my fingertips. I get dizzy and sometimes I throw up, and honestly, I was pretty angry about the whole fucking thing, having to listen to him tell the likes of her about that night.

Will comes up from the den and glares at us. “Tell me you fucking got it,” he grits, “and you already tossed it onto a goddamn junk pile!” Will’s a man with hobbies. I think years ago he might’ve been a teacher, but mostly I think that’s bullshit, even though he does know a lot about the Second Amendment, and arsenals, and what George Washington would think about all this shit. He owns a gun range on the outskirts of the city, and he started this little hunting business on the side because of all the government incentives. I mean, that’s what he said, but it’s pretty clear he enjoys himself out here real good. He smokes a cigar and looks like he’s playing a Vietnam vet. I’m not sure he’s ever been to war. Some of us did a tour or two in Iraq, but I didn’t. When I turned eighteen, I only wanted to kill one species, and it wasn’t other humans.

We tuck our phones away, but only one of us has the courage to ask Will what he means. “Huh?” says Horace. He’s a couple years older than I am, went to the same school as me and all that shit. Circled the same hangouts. My last year was kind of a blur on account of my parents getting killed, and the switch from Big Sky Country to Shit Can City. There were a lot of counselors and a lot of fights with the wolf-kids. The wolf-kids had a special program, and would only show up for a few days out of every month, and so it was hard not to hate them. I roughed them up on the regular, I guess. Horace, too. We’d lost something, and yeah, it was that simple.

They owed us a healing. Everyone knew it.

His crossbow hanging from its strap on his shoulder, Will takes a big puff on his cigar. I quit smoking yesterday and I can already tell that’s all gone to fuck in a dickbasket because I really want a smoke. His glare worsens, like it’s lowering us into our graves. “Arlo, how many were in this pack?” he cuts.

I flinch. I was on recon, so I should know. “Um, like, there were six,” I say. “Sir,” I add, already knowing what he’ll say.

He looks at all of us. “We’ve been watching this pack for months. We got all the goddamn fucking permits. You’re supposed to be guarding the perimeter, making sure they were all down there—and what the fuck do I emerge to find?” We don’t answer. “All of you—staring at your goddamn dicks—your phones in your hands! Our count is five. Now one of them’s out there—” He makes an accusatory motion with his cigar, “and so help me god, if it kills anyone, that death is on you. The way I see it—Jesus, I hope it’s only some fucking bum gets killed.”

We look to one another and I feel really hot, like I’m wedged in the heart of the burning stump. Will gives one look at the fire pit and the cinderblocks and he sneers.

I order coffee and eggs and bacon and three chocolate-chip pancakes, and I only have appetite for the coffee, so I just kind of sit there staring at the syrups. I’m always buying shit I can’t afford. Horace, who likes us all to call him Ace due to something that went down back when he was a kid—I’ve guessed probably involving a different nickname—orders waffles that look like they’ve been dressed in a whipped cream and strawberry tutu, and he avoids catching my eye. No one should blame me about what happened, but it’s pretty clear they all do because I’m the one Will barked at, and when he said that death is on you, his grave glare was right on me—even though all of us were distracted when we came up from the den.

Ace watches my coffee ritual. Two packets of Sugar In The Raw. One thimble of vanilla creamer. “R,” Ace says. “Dude. Are you going to eat that?” He stabs his fork at my bacon.

“No, dude,” I say, and I mean it to have a little edge, but it doesn’t. “It’s yours, man.”

Before we left for Denny’s we checked the junkyard’s perimeter a few more times and all that shit. A few of us pissed on the burning stump and the fire went out and then Will went home with some of the older guys and that was that. Lone wolves usually get picked off by the police if they’re spotted in the city and all of us figured it probably ran that way even though we don’t have a good reason. Abigail, who used to be called Abby until her little brother got his throat ripped out by a wolf or something, ordered hash browns with cheese and said, whatever, assholes, that wolf’s as good as dead anyway—so shut the fuck up about it, will you?

Now she goes by Gail, which Ace and I think is ugly but we’ve never said so.

“Hey,” she says now, nodding her chin somewhere behind me. She’s sitting opposite Ace and me, next to Logan—who has always just been Logan and a heaping pile of steaming bullshit. Logan ordered fries and a Diet Coke and he’s gay, so Ace always makes stupid jokes. Like I’m supposed to want to fuck every gay guy I come across, shit, man, and Logan’s not even my type. First of all, fuck Diet. Second of all, wolves have never fucked with his people, so, I mean, it’s kind of fucked he’s always hanging around with us. Now he double-takes at Gail’s nod, and raises his plucked-perfect eyebrows and that’s how I know even before I turn around that there’s going to be wolves in the far corner booth, scowling at us.

Both Ace and I sit up straight and turn around—what else are we supposed to do?

“Guys!” Gail hisses even though I know she can’t mind. “Jesus,” she grits, just like Will.

When we turn back, the wolves we saw—the wolf I saw—makes me feel like I’ve been stun-shot and now I’m sinking. Like I’m ghosting down through the booth and through the layers of the earth we learned about in school. Crust, mantle, outer core. I don’t make it to the inner core, though, because by that point, I’ve melted into liquid fire.

The wolf’s name was fucking Casper, so that’s on me, I guess. When he said his name I was grinning, I was like, “Ha ha ha, like the friendly ghost?” and when he gave me this “huh?” face, I should’ve figured and all that shit. Who never saw Casper? But I guess at the time I was more figuring, maybe I just remembered the movie real well because when I saw it growing up and Casper turned into a real human kid at the end it made me go fuck, well, I might be into guys.

We met at this gay bar that Logan likes that’s really chill on Tuesdays and sometimes I go with him, and then sometimes, but rarely, Gail will show up with Ace in tow.

Casper found me at the bar waiting for a drink, already drunk and kind of pissed because it was one of those nights. Ace was showing everyone this YouTube video back at our booth and they were crowded around him but I couldn’t hear shit. Three people around a phone is fine and all, but four is pushing it and just for the record, I’m not one of those anti-tech dickwads or anything, I’m just fucking poor and after my grandparents died, my iPhone cracked all to shit. They were footing the phone bill, so that’s that.

Anyway, now that I’m thinking about all this, I guess there were more signs than his stupid reaction to my teasing. His grin, for one. It was a very nice grin, but now that I’m looking back, it was maybe a little too wolfish. Like I could tell there was a little bit of hunger for human flesh lurking behind it, but at the time, that wasn’t the kind of human flesh I was thinking about. He had jet black hair shaved into one of those punk haircuts I used to wear but couldn’t maintain—right after my parents died I was really into the Dead Kennedys, and there was something weirdly sexy about Jello Biafra’s voice when he sang “Police Truck” that was loopy and aggressive but desperate all at the same time—and Casper reminded me of that sound. His eyes were narrow and brown, and they laughed really easy, but never at me. Also he had a tragus piercing and I mean, shit, man, I mean, really—how does that play out on a wolf’s ear?

So I got my drink, and then he was like, “You smoke,” but it wasn’t a question and like a total fuckup I was, like, yeah, how’d you know? And he tapped his nose and winked, and he was like, “I could smell it on you.” And now I’m thinking fuck, well, that was pretty obvious, Arlo, you fucking brainless dick, but at the time I was kind of relieved because he asked if he could bum one. I wanted everyone to see me leaving, having a good time, so we went out back together and we smoked the rest of my pack, and then we made out for a while and then we went back inside.

He was like Joe Strummer, if Strummer were East Asian and at a gay bar and not dead.

The fucked up part is that I saw Casper a couple of times after that, which led to him getting my number, which led to him knocking on my door one night pretty drunk, and I guess things had been so good the past year, you know, that I wasn’t really paying attention to the moon anymore. I paid a lot of attention to it after my parents died, and I guess I always carry a vague awareness of it because I’m a hunter, but I never thought about hunting when I was with Casper and we never talked about it.

After he spent a few nights with me, he found my crossbow in the closet with its silver-tipped bolts and I found him staring, and I told him it was cool. I was like, you want to give it a shot? I know a place we could go. I have the license and all that shit, and he was like, “Have you ever killed anything, R?” and I told him yeah, I’ve killed plenty, and then he actually grinned. He was like, “Me too.” But after that he didn’t come around as much, so that was that.

It’s not like we were in love or anything, but I guess, lately, I’d sort of missed him.

They’re two booths down in the corner, but the booth between us is empty. Gail starts throwing these tiny little balls made out of Logan’s straw wrapper. Her aim is shit, but you’d never know it because when we’re down in the dens, a lot of the time there’s really no aiming involved. She starts using his napkin and Logan just lets her, nodding and smiling like isn’t this funny? We’re regulars at this Denny’s, so I don’t see how we’ve never seen them here before.

I start imagining how white trash we must look in our gear and how we brought our bows and bolts inside and how fucked up that kind of is. Back in school, Ace and Logan, who lived on the edge of some trailer court hinterlands, had these four-wheelers and we used to go down and shoot paintball and I’m starting to think maybe we never grew out of it because we’re still wearing all our stupid-ass shit. We have these bandanas around our arms with this wood-axe emblem. Like ha ha, get it, like we’re the huntsmen from that story where that girl gets eaten by a wolf, which by now, I guess, everyone figures was probably true.

I sink a little lower, trying to remember if any of them ever saw Casper with me, and then I get my answer. Logan shoulders Gail. He’s looking at me. “What’s wrong, R?” he says, and I can hear it in his voice, this cruelness he gets when he’s about to start whaling on someone.

Under the table, my hands clench and unclench, and my palms are sweaty.

Gail is laughing now, and Ace starts in on my eggs, and Logan winks at me.

“Hey, will you fucking shut up?” I say. I want to tell Gail to stop throwing shit, but I don’t.

“What crawled up your ass and died, R? Chill the fuck out.” Gail rolls up another piece of Logan’s napkin and dips it in my coffee—what the fuck, I growl, but she sends the wad sailing. “It doesn’t fucking matter,” she says for the thousandth time. “Just because you’ve got your panties in a bunch over losing one doesn’t mean we’ve got to share your shit mood, you know?” She snorts with laughter, “Fuck—they’re catching on, I think—”

I can’t help sneering. “The thing we lost wasn’t one of them, it was wild, it can’t even transform—” like the pack that killed your brother, but I don’t say that part. Gail’s still laughing, but Logan gets this frown going and I know he hears me. “And seriously, what the fuck?” My voice is a little louder now, “I’m not the one who lost it, why am I getting blamed? Ace was the one on his phone, and you’re the one who was fucking with Snapchat filters the whole time—”

“Dude, um,” Ace looks up from his phone, “you were the one staring at that fire pit—”

“Yeah, um, actually,” Gail chimes in, “that was weird, wasn’t it? I mean how’d a bunch of wild wolves cut a stump like that and light it on fire?” They’re all looking at me. “You’re the one who did recon,” Gail says, like I don’t already fucking know.

Then I see the flicker of dangerous excitement in Logan’s eye. “Hey guys,” he says, interrupting Gail, and I know he’s going to tell them. “Did you know R here fucked one of—”

“Excuse me.”

We look up.

It’s one of the wolves, but it isn’t Casper. The wolf-girl doesn’t say anything more, just dumps a cup of her yellowy piss right on Gail’s head. Gail screeches, chokes on it—and I’m out of the booth like lightning, Jesus, shit! not because I’m afraid of getting piss on me, but because everything is fucked and my heart’s thrumming crazy like it did on my first hunt and I’ve got to move. I push the wolf-girl out of the way and she’s howling, like, howling with laughter, and I think I’m totally leaving, but I don’t have a car, and even if I did, Ace always drives.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I say, once I’m out in the parking lot. I figure the cops will be here soon because this isn’t such a bad side of town, I guess, and it’ll be this whole thing. They’ll see we’ve got our bows and all that shit, not that it really matters, but we’ll have to stand around in this Denny’s parking lot all night showing them our licenses, getting looked up in databases—they might call Will, fuck, I mean, I doubt I’d lose my job, but maybe I could.

I pace, trying to remember. I don’t know. I didn’t see shit. I didn’t see that fire pit on recon, I just saw a fucking hovel, and wolves, and piles of junk. The moon’s been high the past few days, and just yesterday I was there, and I didn’t see any of them transform. Not the month before, not the month before that. I mean, it’s not like we just shoot up any old pack we find. They’ve got to be verified, you know? And they were, but even if they weren’t—who the fuck am I shitting? Will’s taken us to a few jobs way outside the city, in the suburbs that need a quick favor after a kid goes missing. It wasn’t my fault. It’s not my fault. No fucking way, man.

Casper doesn’t say anything, but I know he’s standing there. Watching me after he lights up his smoke, and I let him watch and take a few drags. Finally, he says, “They called the cops, I think, but Amadeus and Freya just ran—she’s the one who came up to you guys.” He shrugs and takes another drag and I want very badly to ask him for a smoke, and I know he wishes I’d ask.

“Why aren’t you running?” I say. I stop pacing, but now I’m shaking. I can’t get calm. They get to pick their human names, I heard. Whatever names they want and I don’t give a fuck why Casper picked his. Something is moving through me like a tremor now, the kind that splits mountains.

“I will,” he says. He still looks the same, only he’s got new boots. He fidgets with his phone in his free hand and it lights his face up, the sharp of his bones, his narrow nose. Deep down I know he’s anxious, but he looks indifferent. Like whatever, man, you’re on your own.

“Fuck you,” I say. I let the words cut my mouth and they hurt and I want him to know how bad they hurt even though I can tell they’ve cut him, too. It doesn’t fucking matter.

He tenses when I move towards him, like he’s watching the earth crack wide open, but he’s not going to move, he’s just going to let himself fall in like a stupid fucking idiot. Like those wolf-kids at school or the wild ones in the den. Like they just exist to take it and do nothing, just lie down and die, only, I’m wrong—and he doesn’t take it. He flicks his smoke and then right here in some Denny’s parking lot we tear each other into hundreds of raw, bloody pieces, and we don’t say a word the whole time we just keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting and I don’t know how but it starts ripping me up inside, too, how easy it all happens.

When I moved to the city, I moved in with my grandparents who owned this little townhouse in a retirement community, I guess. They’re gone now too, so when I moved out on my own, I got this place near the city park and whatever’s left of the gardens. The trees aren’t like they were back home, but it’s about as close as I can get to real colors, you know?

I live in a basement apartment with one window and one room. It’s No Smoking, but I smoke anyway and all that shit. Some nights, I can’t stand the smell, so I wander outside in the dark, on the trails near a ravine that cuts through the park like a wide gash. The ravine goes on for miles that way. By my place, on the trails, there’s usually a shitload of litter and something strange will come over me and I’ll get right up next to the bank smoking my smoke, and fish out all the trash. I never put it where it belongs though—I sort of just pile it up beside me in the rocks.

The first few times, I liked it—the hunting, I mean—and this pack, it’s not like they were innocent and all that shit. They’d killed a few people living near the tracks, so at first, no one was saying much about the deaths, but then the police got involved and Will stuck his nose in, got us hired. Will calls them hunts. Lately, they’ve felt more like exterminations. My first kill was pretty scrappy and all that shit. Thing put up a fight. I’ve got scars, sure. I used to be proud about them, but one night, when Casper found one (and I guess he must’ve known but he asked anyway), I said it was from falling out of a tree when I was a kid.

I didn’t even know he was one of them so it’s weird, you know, that I lied.

Will’s always going on and on about the world dying, and getting worse, and how the apocalypse is nigh and all that shit, but lately I sort of feel like the world’s been totally shit-canned since probably forever, I guess. Since man first fucked some woman in a cave. There’s never been anywhere safe, or perfect. Not when people are always around to ruin it all to hell.

But now I get to thinking about the fire pit again, that stump cut into sections. How it reminded me of the lightning-struck tree seeping at the seams with fire, back when my parents were alive. I fish the last of the trash out of the water and sit, taking a long drag on the last smoke from Casper’s pack. My fingers are numb. Back at the hunt, that wild wolf tricked me, I guess. When he heard us coming, he was probably outside, keeping watch like we should’ve done on recon. I’ll bet he knew I was in his yard, made sure I saw what he wanted me to see. I’ll bet he was a sentinel, like I am.

I mean—or, I don’t know.

The cold moonlight bites Roque as he staggers down a steep ravine. There are no birds here. He is human. He is clumsy, naked. There is only the sound of rust, and grinding halts, and Roque is shivering. He has to stop so he can weep. Roque is human. He gags on his tears. They taste like slivers of silver. Near him there is water, and he laps it up to wash the taste of grief out of his mouth. Later, he will throw it back up because it is rotten and contaminated and his insides are raw. The trees hiss at him, his feet cut from the rocks of the stream. He is weeping, weeping, weeping. He is alone. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shadow in the dawn with smoke pouring from its mouth. Roque is human. When he sees the shadow, he knows it sees him.

Emily Lundgren is a student of fiction at the Northeast Ohio MFA where she is working on a fantasy novel narrated by a poet shapeshifter, a lost witch prince zombie-vampire, and a woman with an electric guitar. She is from South Dakota and is still getting used to Ohio’s narrow roads. This is her first publication. When not writing, she is probably lighting the bonfire at The Painted World in Dark Souls. You can follow her on twitter @emslun.

Run With Other Packs:

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

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade – Ógán is twenty-one. He is studying history at Queen’s University, Belfast. Succumbed to a powerful drug fugue in his dorm room, he is paralyzed, unmoving for a whole day except that within himself he’s travelling through Indonesia; a trip he and his fiancée Niamh have meticulously planned for years, and which they intend to take after graduation. When he eventually comes to, Ógán realizes the places he wants to travel to will never live up to his dreams. He rushes over to Malachy’s.

Even in This Skin, by A.C. Wise – Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg


Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
~Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I

Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves. Seven bridges straddle the river between First and Barton Road as it winds through a downtown of antique stores, the crepe-streamered American Legion, the purple house advertising tarot and palm readings. One of the bridges goes nowhere, ending four feet above the ground behind a solitary Chinese restaurant, and no one has ever been able to tell me what it used to reach. On the east bank, sitting mostly by itself between the paved river walk and the ties of an abandoned stretch of railroad, you’ll find the county art museum, a sliver of white concrete and glass.

palin06Most people are wrong, as it happens. I’ve lived in this city all my life, and the real explanation has nothing to do with the river. In the early 1840s, a pair of hearty Dutchmen were surveying for the highway that would link the port and railroads of the urban south to the farmland and sawmills of the north woods. Here, nestled among the ridges and kettles that the glaciers’ icy fingertips carved out eons and eons ago, they planted the sign that marked the halfway point along that road. A resting place for weary travelers. A city born of exhaustion.

I am so fucking tired.

The thing is — and I’m finally starting to admit this to myself — I don’t believe there’s a puzzle here. There’s no way to turn these jagged pieces into a smooth picture of something that makes sense. First you’d have to crack off the extra material and file the edges down, like you’re shaping a mosaic from pottery shards; you have to break away more and more to even get the right shape. This story is like a vase made from other, broken vases. And maybe it will hold water when you’re finished, but probably it won’t.

The painting is still there, hanging at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. The landing makes a shallow triangle between the main collection, the American Indian gallery, and the eternally empty corridor labeled “Special Exhibits” on the map. You can use up all the fingers on one hand counting the number of times I’ve gone to that museum in the last year, and I find myself pausing in that tight and windowless space every time, hoping to see something different. I’m always disappointed.

Both the printed and electronic maps call the painting White Moose, but the name on the museum placard is Katabolism. The word has something to do with digestion, with the extraction of energy from chemical compounds. The first time I saw that title, I thought the artist was a pretentious fuck. Now I’m not so sure.

In any case, the title on the map is an accurate description. The oil painting shows a white bull moose, lumbering through a landscape that looks not unlike the glacial moraine that gnaws perpetually at the city limits. He’s no local fauna, though, and he’s bigger than life-size on the canvas: seven or eight feet high at the shoulder, his antlers spread off the edges. The antlers are thin and asymmetrical, with six points on his right and seven on his left. His eyes are the same color as his coat, slightly filmed.

Every time I see him, I think how much better I would feel if he were an albino, a lovely red-eyed creature like the rabbits and sometimes deer that I find stumbling in my backyard in winter, when the snow-reflected sun is too bright for them—something natural, fragile, and not-at-all sinister. But the white of the moose is not an absence of pigment. His color is something creeping over him, coating the duller, natural life underneath. Every time I see him, the white has spread a little farther.

The placard gives only three initials and a year: Y. L. H. 2012.

If you’re one of the people who believes that Blair is dead, then near as I can tell, this is the painting that killed them.

I’m not certain, yet, if I’m one of those people. But then, I’m certain of very little where Blair is concerned.

palin02They were not my son, and they were not my daughter; but what they were remains unfathomable and changeling. I’m not talking about sex, those hundreds of quiet and not-so-quiet confusions that stalked my child for the seventeen years of their life in this city. I am talking about how hard it is to even think of Blair as my child — to claim Blair as mine, when they seemed so determined to be anything but.

(Speaking of Blair in the past tense has started to come naturally, and maybe that’s the most fucked-up thing about this whole mess.)

When I get home from my shift at the library, I stand in the laundry room at the back of our little bungalow, take their t-shirt from the hamper, and smell the cinnamon smell of their shampoo. I can’t remember their face, not really: only pale skin, dark eyes, red hair that was always too long and always faintly damp. White as daisy and red as sorrel, or however that fairytale goes. I don’t even have a photograph.

I stand in their bedroom beneath the pitched roof of the eastern gable and smell the stinking richness of their favorite myrrh candle, which is still cemented to the window ledge with its own gray wax. The desk beneath the window is littered with sheets of the cheap, yellowish paper that the secretary at the Catholic church on Kilbourne let me rescue from the recycling. I can’t see any words or lines of ink, perhaps because whatever was there has faded after so many months of sunrises. Or maybe there was nothing there to begin with.

Alone in Blair’s bedroom, I cover my mouth with both hands and say things that a mother should never say to her child. The words tear their way out of my throat like knives. I beg them to come home, you little bastard, come back and stop all this bullshit about the paintings, about Y. L. H. and the things we see in the forest. Please, come home. You’re killing me.

Finally, when I am too tired to beg, I tell them to go fuck themself.

But to begin at the beginning.

January, grey and dreary, and school was back in session after a tempestuous winter break. I found out from the newspaper that a membership card for the art museum cost twenty-five dollars, fifteen with student identification. I got a letter from Blair’s art teacher and that was good enough for the woman at the ticket counter. Unlike me, Blair never had a talent for words. They pulled Ds and Fs in one English class after another, losing books, failing to turn in essays. I thought art might give them whatever we try to get from stories.

Once upon a time there was a forest, ‘savage, rough, and stern…’

From that first afternoon, all they could talk about was the White Moose.

“I think he’s one of them,” they said.

We were walking home along the east bank of the river, where shards of brown ice ground against the shoreline. On either side of the path, the Rotary Club’s rosebushes slept under cones of yellowed Styrofoam. I was cold and only half-listening.

“One of what?” I asked.

“You know. One of them from the forest.”

And in the savage forest there lived a mother, and her child…

I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye. Their hood was pushed back despite the cold, and their hair glinted like copper. Hair like a lost penny, my mother always said. She was a woman to whom anything beautiful looked lost.

“In the painting, I saw ripples on the leaves at the bottom,” Blair said. “The light’s distorted, almost like they’re underwater. But it’s just him. He fills the whole kettle — the whole canvas. It’s just that he’s denser in the shape of the moose.”

No, I thought then, it’s impossible. In the January daylight, I wasn’t even disturbed.

“That’s only the style,” I said. “Don’t make something out of nothing.”

On our left, a brick staircase ran from the river walk up to the Fourth Street Bridge. I began to take the steps two at a time.

“It isn’t nothing,” Blair said stubbornly. “Whoever painted that picture must know about them.”

“No one else knows about them, Blair.”

Blair wasn’t following. I looked back over my shoulder and saw them staring, not at me on the stairs, but at the glimmer of black water threading through the ice.

“Who do you think the artist is?” they asked. “Y. L. H.?”

… a mother, and her child, and a witch.

“I don’t have a clue,” I said, and kept walking. I meant: I don’t want to know. Let’s not find out.

Or maybe it began before that.

Maybe it began the day Blair told me that they were not a boy, and the only thing I felt was relief. Does that sound terrible? Does admitting that make me an awful mother? I don’t know. But I know that I had never wanted a son. I didn’t grow up with brothers or cousins, only with the faces on the news, and the broad and smirking faces in the bars south of the depot, the hungry faces trailing tired women in convenience stores, the post office, the high school gymnasium. Savage, rough, and stern. When I imagined having a son, I imagined him growing up like that. I’d never wanted to deal with that kind of man, and I can’t help but feel, guiltily, like I was granted an unspoken wish.

palin01Blair’s father had that particularly male helplessness, sucking and draining, pressuring and pleading, and both the best and the worst you can say is that it doesn’t leave bruises. I can remember all those nights in supermarket parking lots or under movie theatre marquees, when he had followed me somewhere on the bus because he just had to be sure. “I’m such an idiot, Joan,” he would cry. “I always knew I’d do something stupid like this and make you leave me.” And because he was pitiful, because he needed saving, I had to tell him I’m not going anywhere, baby, and hold him while he sobbed.

In the end, he was the one to leave. He found the energy somewhere, and followed the freeway south. Maybe this all started the day he left, and I stayed. The day the forest pulled me stronger than he had pushed, in the way of every fairytale without a happy ending.

One evening in February, a week or two after that first visit to the museum, Blair was late coming home from school. Not late enough for me to really worry; merely a dress rehearsal for everything yet to come. I sat by the kitchen door, watching the sky darken and considering whether to call, when I heard the front door snap against the siding, and Blair swept in with a slushy gasp of twilight. They were looking at something on their phone as they stepped into the kitchen and flipped the light switch.

I closed the book whose pages I hadn’t turned in half an hour.

“Where have you been?”

They shrugged. The shoulders of their thrift-store jacket were fuzzy with dust. “Downtown,” they said.

“Anywhere specifically?”

It was a chance laugh, to break the tension that wasn’t quite thick enough to acknowledge. They looked at me without smiling.


Victor’s was a café on Rhodes Avenue, the very edge of downtown. I don’t know what the cavernous pile of red brick had been originally, with its alcoves and square turrets like the growths of some rhomboid crystal, but the interior space glowed with recent renovation, all waxy yellow wood and bare Edison bulbs. The coffee was mediocre, the pastries gluey and flavorless, but they housed a spectacular collection of shit: knock-off Tiffany chandeliers, assorted sporting equipment signed by virtual unknowns, and musical instruments missing strings or vital knobs. The café was a garage sale written by H. P. Lovecraft and illustrated by Virgil Finlay.

“What’s that on your phone?” I asked.

Their fingers tightened around the pale blue case, an almost undetectable moment of hesitance. But they passed me the phone without a word of complaint.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see. Dim and indistinct, with the hallmark shallowness of a cheap cellphone camera, the photo showed a woman sitting at a high table at Victor’s pastry counter. The first thing I noticed was her scarlet leather boots, the black heels hooked over the rung of her chair. The second was her hair, white as milk and hanging down to her thighs.

I felt a creeping chill up my spine, like the sensation you get when you swim into water that is suddenly deeper than you expected.

“It’s her,” Blair said. “Yelena Linden Hersh.”

I handed the phone back. “How do you know her name?”

“I asked, after I took the picture.”

“How did you know who she was?”

Instead of answering, Blair swiped their screen and passed me the phone again. It was still Victor’s — I recognized the pounded tin on the wall. Blair had tried to photograph a painting, but the phone camera wasn’t up to the task. The texture of the canvas stood out prominently. So did the globs and ridges of paint caked along the bottom. It looked like a painting of a bog, some vast surface of black water, and the thick knobs of paint bobbed along it like something alive.

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Look at that one towards the front.” Blair tapped a red-enameled fingernail against the screen, on a pale blur in the foreground. “It looks like a frog, doesn’t it? But there’s a woman just under the water. That white thing rising to the surface is her breast.”

The sick feeling had traveled to the pit of my stomach. “Blair,” I began, but I couldn’t finish. The painting was at once too strange and too dreadfully familiar.

Blair slid the phone into their jacket pocket without another word. They tucked a lock of flame-orange hair behind their ear and stepped into the living room. I heard the static click of the analog television turning on, and took a slow, shuddering breath.

What do you call the opposite of déjà vu? Not the sense of a recurrence, but its inverse: The feeling that this is a moment to which you will return. That was what I felt, envisioning that painting by Yelena Linden Hersh. That small breast in the water, beckoning like a ghost.

The things in the forest are still there: still filling the kettles like mist and twisting the light like water, still pulling at my heart like every hunger in hell. They haven’t gone away just because Blair did. It’s not that I thought they would leave — just that it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had. I don’t know the shape of this puzzle, remember. I can’t begin to imagine how all of it does or doesn’t fit together.

palin07But they are still here, as much as they have ever been. Vaporous and vast, they seem as much air as flesh, although sometimes I can make out a shape — a deer or elk, or else some long-snouted, carnivorous thing. Soft black eyes emerge from the places where they are densest, and nearly human mouths shape words I can almost understand. Sometimes I think they are drawn to me, although this might be abhorrent self-flattery.


Some mornings, just after sunrise, I walk down to the woods behind the bungalow. For an hour or two, I sit very still on the remains of a farmer’s fieldstone fence, holding out my empty hand. They come to me out of the water, out of the air, and they kiss my palm as though tasting for sweets.

Some of these mornings, I have seen Yelena Hersh in the forest, walking in her scarlet boots. Her black jacket is buckled to her chin and she walks briskly without looking down. I called to her, once, but she didn’t even look my way.

There is nothing strange about her being there, I try to tell myself. It’s a small city, and the trails through the forest are popular. I have seen a lot of people walking. But she’s the only one I’ve ever seen when they are around.

In March, the art museum hosted a show of local women artists. It was mostly watercolors of cats and pencil sketches of tractors: also a quilt, a ceramic beehive, a few mercury-glass sculptures that I couldn’t figure out. The latest offspring of Yelena Linden Hersh’s brush hung just outside the gift shop, between a pastel sketch of sleeping kittens and a rack of dusty scarves.

It was called Anabolism. Which is the opposite and compliment to katabolism; it’s a kind of reassembling, the re-linking of molecules after the body grinds them up for energy. Anabolism is how the body lengthens bones and grows muscles. How it makes more of itself, I guess, out of everything it takes in.

The painting showed Blair emerging from a pond in one of the larger kettles. The water came up only to their knees, but there was a weirdness about the ripples that made me think Blair was floating rather than standing on the ground underneath. There’s no telling how deep that water is out there in the moraine; geologists say it can be as little as two or as many as two hundred feet.

In the painting, Blair was naked. Each skinny muscle tensed in the cold, layering blue shadow on pale skin. The slight tuck of the waist looked like a teenage girl’s. The flat thighs, even larger than life on the canvas, seemed small enough for you to cup your hands around—to snap with a flick of your wrist. I don’t remember the face.

“What if people recognize you, Blair? What if kids from school go to the museum?” Arms folded across my stomach, I sat on the sea chest in the corner of their bedroom. Despite the asthmatic chug of the heater, everything felt cool and damp to the touch. The candle on the window ledge burned greasily, leaving a myrrh-scented streak on the ceiling.

“Blair?” I repeated softly.

They looked up from the spread of paper on their desk.

“What do you think people will say?”

“Fuck people,” Blair said. The thing that lurked in their eyes was tense and coiled, too ravenous to be fear.

Here is the damned thing, or one of the many damned things in this whole hellish business: I can’t prove that Yelena Hersh had anything to do with Blair’s disappearance. I can’t even prove that Blair began meeting her. Those fucking paintings might have been proof once. They aren’t any more. They still exist, but they aren’t Blair any more. And maybe I’m mad for thinking that they ever were.

People in this city, they have all the answers they feel like looking for. Blair was a sad kid, a confused kid: it’s all there, wrapped up in whatever was or wasn’t behind the zipper of those weathered black jeans. “Kids like him disappear all the time, Joan,” the secretary at the station said to me. “They just do. Don’t go dragging a woman’s name through the mud over it.”

So where do they go, the kids like Blair? Do they evaporate into thin air? Wash down the river, get carried out to the lake, like all the other flotsam and jetsam from exhausted cities like this? Sometimes I imagine Blair has gone to find their father; other times, while walking over one of the bridges downtown, I think I see their face in the river, floating between mats of leaves. Sometimes the fantasies comfort me, and sometimes they don’t.

Maybe the kids like Blair start spending their evenings with strange women twice their age — women who wear scarlet boots and black wool, who dream of ghosts and monsters, whose hair is white as milk. Maybe they spend too much time wandering in the forest, snooping in the ruins of barns and sugar houses that the maples are slowly reclaiming: maybe they get lost in the woods. Or maybe they get eaten by witches.

Maybe you’re getting frustrated with me now, with my increasingly evident disregard for the facts. What really happened? you may well ask. What’s the true course of events? But the only truth I know for certain is that I am fucking exhausted. You cannot begin to understand how tired I am. And I don’t think that having the answers will let me sleep any more soundly.

Palingenesis. In its simplest translation, it means rebirth. Sometime in the nineteenth century, it got picked up to describe the now-discarded hypothesis that ontongeny recapitulates phylogeny — the development of the fetus proceeds along the same lines as the evolution of the species. Or, in another version, that children become educated by passing through the earlier stages of human society. From barbarity to civilization. Another discredited, Victorian idea.

palin05In the painting, Blair could almost be sleeping. Their eyes are closed, the lids wet and purple. Their limbs are folded up, almost fetal, the dry pink of knees and elbows picked out with the medical detail of anatomy plates. The setting sun is at their back, and the blowing leaves have started to mound up around their feet. You can feel the wind gusting from that direction: a bitter, northern wind.

Why is this the image burned into the back of my eyelids? Why do I remember this, and not their face? I’m afraid that’s a question to which I already know the answer.

(Another riddle: If Katabolism is the painting that killed Blair, what does that make Palingenesis?)

I don’t know if there are other things in that painting, or if the bending of the light along the forest floor is just an accident of style. I must admit that I haven’t brought myself to look too closely. The one unforgivable piece of strangeness — the part that would tell you the name of the artist, even if you didn’t see the stark initials in the corner — is the sapling that sprouts from Blair’s genitals. It is slender, leafless, and almost the same color as their skin: a sickly, peeling white with scabs of pink. Where the bark pulls away, the pulp that shows beneath is black as rot.

In the second week of April, at Yelena Hersh’s request, the directors hung Palingenesis at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. They put the White Moose back before the end of the week, after unspecified complaints.

By then, of course, it was too late. By then, Blair was gone.

In our last conversation, the day before they failed to show up for school, Blair told me a secret about Yelena Hersh.

“She has a son,” Blair said. It was Sunday evening, and we were loading groceries into the trunk of the Nissan: cans of beans, boxes of macaroni, and a half-gallon of skim. Everything teetered on the edge of the mundane, precariously normal, until Yelena intruded like a ghost.

“A son?” I repeated, and Blair tipped their head in a nod.

“When she was younger than me, she got pregnant. She gave him up for adoption.”

I frowned, at a loss for the proper response. Blair slammed the trunk, disturbing a layer of late, powdery snow.

“She says the news terrifies her now. It’s all men with guns, men with knives. Men who run over women with trucks and strangle children by playgrounds.” Blair watched me wheel the cart to the side of the car, sliding their hands into the pockets of their jeans. “She’s afraid she’ll see him on the news one day. Or she’s already seen him, just didn’t recognize him as hers.”

The next day, Blair was gone. And I wonder, now, if the news is something that terrifies every mother with sons. Or if we were just the strange ones, Yelena Hersh and I — the Pasiphaes of our century, afraid that we would give birth to monsters.

To early-twentieth-century sexologists, anabolic and katabolic were gendered terms. The female was anabolic, conservative and preserving. She consolidated the evolutionary adaptations of her species, passing them to her offspring. The katabolic male, creative and destructive, was responsible for the mutations, for everything novel or monstrous — two sides of the same coin.

All of that is bullshit, of course. If Blair has taught me nothing else, it’s this — the creative and the destructive chase each other perpetually, like blood and bathwater swirling around a drain. But preservation, that’s the most ridiculous fantasy of all.

palin04Sometimes, I imagine that Blair’s father saw those paintings. That he recognized his child and came to find them, that he offered Blair a better life than I could give them here. This is improbable. As if Blair’s father could be in this city without me knowing. As if he had any interest in art. It’s easier to believe that they left with their father, though, than what the school counselors try to tell me about suicide and statistics and ‘kids like him.’

It is easier, also, than imagining that the forest had something to do with it.

There is a new tree, now, where the dead farmer’s fence runs to a halt some fifteen yards from my property line. A skim of peaty water pools over the fallen leaves, and the tree grows from it, white as milk. I’ve gone so far as to step into the water, reaching for the bark, which looks so warm and soft. But the mud beneath my boot gave way, and my foot sank far enough that I knew the water was something more than snowmelt.

Maybe if I hadn’t stepped back onto solid ground, I would have something closer to an answer.

Or maybe Blair ran away. Maybe you ran, sweetheart, all on your own, without your father, without ghosts or monsters or Yelena Linden Hersh. You were never good with words, and you wouldn’t have left a note. You left me paintings instead, and maybe all the explanation I’m searching for is there. If only I could bring myself to look.

“I know why you don’t like her,” Blair said to me once. It was a morning in late March, before they left for school. We stood on the back deck in our jackets, and with cold, bare hands, they held the birdfeeder steady while I poured in the mix of seed.

“You want to be special, don’t you?” Blair said. “That’s why you won’t believe that she can see them, too. You want them all to yourself.”

On a sudden impulse, I pressed a kiss to their forehead. Some of the seed missed the feeder, pouring out into the slush, but they didn’t turn away.

“Yes,” I whispered, mouthing the words against their skin. Maybe they heard me, and maybe they didn’t. “I always have.”

Katabolism should not be confused with katabasis, which means a journey into the underworld. Katabasis is Dante and Aeneas, Orpheus and Psyche. It’s revelation and love and disaster. Anabasis would be the return, if a return from the underworld is possible—a suggestion for which I haven’t seen much evidence. The words can also mean, respectively, a retreat down to the water, and the journey back inland or uphill.

Some of the reviews in the papers and the online magazines misprinted the titles of Yelena Hersh’s paintings. Anabolism and Katabasis, digestion and descent. The pieces from two different puzzles pushed inelegantly together, and that makes as good a metaphor for me and Blair and Yelena Linden Hersh as any other I could come up with.

The word palingenesia appears once in the New Testament. It describes the new creation, in which the order of the old will be utterly overturned. I’m not holding my breath. But I guess every city has an explanation, even the divine ones. And I guess creation requires destruction—revelation, uncovering, apocalypsis — before everything else.

If you were here, sweetheart, I’d tell you to run.

This city is not for you. You are not tired yet.

Today, by the white tree in the brown water, Yelena Hersh is sitting on the remains of the fieldstone fence. Her scarlet boots are speckled with mud, and a vast white creature like a moose leans down to nuzzle her shoulder. She does not seem to see him. She sees me on the trail and raises one hand, a trembling salute, and her white hair falls around her face like a curtain.

The things in the forest — I don’t think that they are older than us. Not exactly. I’ve begun to think they are us, or us as we will be. That is why the painting called Anabolism has started to look like something else: not Blair anymore, but a white canine thing, a carnivorous thing rearing on its hind legs. Another stage in our evolution. Perhaps the things in the forest are nothing better or worse than our children.

That’s all the Minotaur was, in the end.

I worry, sometimes, that I will wander into the woods one morning and they will no longer be there. It will only be the trees and water and dead leaves, and the unrelenting anabasis and katabasis of a landscape birthed by ice. I think the reason they frighten me is not because they are so strange, but because they are fragile. I am afraid that they will disappear.

Or that one day I will look, and look, and will have forgotten how to see.




Megan Arkenberg lives in Northern California, where she is pursing a Ph.D. in English literature. Her work has appeared in  Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and dozens of other places. She was recently the nonfiction editor for Nightmare‘s Queers Destroy Horror! special issue; she also procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance. Megan tweets @meganarkenberg and blogs sporadically at blog.meganarkenberg.com.


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28-thumbnailIn the Pines, by K.M. Carmien “You stink like city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago. 

Shimmer-19-ThumbnailThe Earth & 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.

Shimmer-21-ThumbnailWe Take the Long View, by Erica L. Satifka The snow crunches under our boots as us-in-Devora and us-in-Mel trace our way through the Forest-That-Thinks. We pause, waiting for directions. That way. Sunlight pierces through the low-slung clouds. The Forest speaks again and there’s a picture in our minds of the Very-Big-Wrong and the image of a landing site appears in our head. We have not thought of landing sites for a very long time.

In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien

“You stink like the city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago.

The body, technically, is still living. The girl herself is gone or erased or sleeping in whatever dream the woods-thing can build for her.

The drifter is in pieces in his potter’s grave. Only the woods-things are allowed to kill in here.

That is, in fact, the subject of this meeting.

Harry Kang shrugs. She can’t argue there–she just got back from Duluth. The ghosts of steel shavings and city smog are still sunk in her shadow. Her brother works there in a warehouse that ships car parts. By all accounts he seems to like it, but you never can tell with Reg.

“I hate it,” the woods-thing continues, “Why do you go?” It seems more petulant than normal, and more on edge. It won’t stop moving — shifting from foot to foot, picking at the moss lining its cuticles, tugging its curls.

“Family calls,” Harry says.

It spits into the leaf-mould at its feet. Woods-things think family means never leaving. Means a fisher-king binding to the land. So none of them have ever thought much of Harry’s brother, when they consider him at all.

Woods-things spare very little thought for humans who aren’t either witches or annoying them. Or both.

“Come this way,” it says, “To see the body.”

That’s the thing about witching. At some point there’s always a damn body.

pines1Harry has always been a witch.

It comes down through her mother, though they are so entirely different that’s it strange they have anything at all in common, even eye color (brown like soaked bark, like forest streams). Her mother’s magic is books and symbols and long bright lines of numbers. Harry’s is dirt and leaves and roots, blood and antlers, deadwood. Like her grandmother, long dead.

When she was younger, no one but her dared enter the family garden, for fear that the herbs growing there would rise up and choke them for daring to not be her.

In the town of Canby, Minnesota, home to fifteen hundred sixty-seven people, there is an understanding about the women of the Kang family and their little cabin just on the edge of the woods. It wasn’t always the Kang family — before her mother married her father Michael, new-come from Korea to look after the paper-mill’s machines, human as human and loving as the whole wide sky, they were the McKinnons. And it was known that the McKinnon women, for a price, would…help. In little ways. Lower a mortgage, ease a birth, punish a wrong the police ignored. A gift left on the concrete stoop of their little house at the edge of the forest could buy much.

(It was also known, although less well, that the woods, too, would answer a request, if paid in blood.)

At school, people would sometimes ask Harry to show them things. Harry, six years old and tick-swelled with pride, said that it was not for showing off.

And she did not, though they sang to her, though she slept and ate and dreamed restless hungry dreams in their shadow, though her father and brother went in with rifles and came out with deer, enter the woods. Her mother had asked her not to, and in those days Harry was a good girl. No matter how much she ached to go in — she was a good girl.

Then there was the murder, in the winter of 1998.

The girl in question, Harry feels it’s important to remember, was named Maisie Grant. Harry knew her, because Canby is so small that one must work not to be known, but not well. She was a junior in high school. She wanted to go to New York for film school, so she could make nature documentaries. Maisie was not afraid of the woods. She loved them, spent her weekends hiking with an antique compass and maps and fair-trade trail mix, taking gorgeous pictures with her little camera and pouring her adoration out over the trees.

The woods repaid her as best they could, but they could not save her from the knife. Woods-things must be woken. And despite all her love, Maisie never knew how.

When she didn’t come home that October Sunday, and when the police found nothing after those crucial forty-eight hours, Maisie’s mother asked Evelyn Kang to find her.

But it was Harry, fifteen and prideful and wanting the woods like some people want a lover, who went in.

The trees said to her: she is here.

The trees said to her: this is what you are.

The trees said to her: is it not time to become?

A good many of Harry’s reasons were selfish.

In she walked, her battered work-boots making no sound on the carpet of pine needles. A ghostlight burned pale gray-white in her upheld left palm. Shadows snapped and rolled around her, thrown into a frantic dance by her light. If she were being honest with herself, Harry would have to admit that the ghostlight wasn’t actually helping,

But witch or no, she was a child alone in the dark forest, and being without the light frightened her too much.

(Some of the shadows were not shadows at all, only things that looked that way, and were watching her. She could hear them whispering right on the edge of sound, but was still too young to know them.)

The trees sang, still, but did not speak. They weren’t going to hand her everything. Witches should know.

For a long time, till past moonrise, Harry wandered, not quite lost but not quite sure of the path. The still core of her where she kept her magic was buzzing with nervous excitement and worry and nausea.

Even then Harry was a realist. She knew how likely it was that there was a corpse waiting at the other end of this night, and that probably she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The shadows dogged her path. Wolf-eyes gleamed about her, there and gone in half a heartbeat.

pines2Finally she stopped beneath a massive, twisted pine. This wasn’t working. “New plan,” she said under her breath. Her voice trembled more than she’d like, but there was a thin clear thread of strength in it. Harry sat down, cross-legged, on the cold ground, and made her mind into a tiny hard-light sphere.

She breathed in. She breathed out.

She cast her mind like a dragnet over the woods.

Life jackhammered through her. Trees and insects, sleeping birds, owls on the wing, the huge slow pulses of moose and bears, great cats and the bright, brief little stabs that were rodents. The woods-things, alien and familiar all at once. The coiling, endless heartbeat of roots and moss and bones at the center of it all. And she forgot her name, and her purpose, and that she was a her and not part of the woods.

And, as payment for this forgetting, she knew everything.

Later, when she went home, Harry would learn just what she’d done and fear it. Then she knew it well enough that she didn’t fear it, because among the everything she understood how someone might remember she was a fifteen-year-old girl and become that again.

She knew where Maisie Grant was, and where Maisie Grant’s blood soaked into the earth, and she knew where the man who had killed her was, and what had been done to him for his crimes.

Then Harry collapsed back down into her flesh, and was only a girl. But she remembered what she needed. Harry stood on shaking legs, throat dry, eyes burning, and made her way through the dark woods to the clearing. Moonlight lay gentle over the leaves and the blood and the glassy-eyed dead face of the drifter, and on Maisie Grant’s body, which sat primly on a fallen log. The woods-thing inside Maisie’s skin smiled a rictus smile, wide as the ragged slash across Maisie’s throat, and said, “You’re the witch. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Harry swallowed down fear and revulsion and said, “I came for Maisie. Her mother wants answers.”

“And she may have them, but this — ” The woods-thing ran Maisie’s dead hand possessively over Maisie’s dead thigh. “This is mine. She gave it to me. She said I want to live I want to live, and she paid me with all of her blood, and this is what I could do.”

A bargain, freely made and finished in good faith. As much as Harry hated the idea of this thing made of wood and sap and old hungers inside the body of a girl she’d known — it was fairly done. To break it would break her power and anger the woods and a whole host of other things that she, young as she was, couldn’t imagine but knew would be terrible.

“That’s fair. And the drifter?”

“She wanted him to be punished.” The smile, which hadn’t gone away, widened. Maisie’s teeth were white and pearly, straight from years of braces, and gleamed unsettlingly in the moonlight. “I punished him.”

“That’s fair, too.”

“You’re a smart witch.”

“Well, that’s a requirement.”

The woods-thing laughed, and mercifully it wasn’t Maisie’s laugh, but high and chiming and completely inhuman. “Only sometimes. What will you give her mother for answers?”

“Give me her pack,” said Harry, “And a lock of her hair. It’ll have to be enough.”

It wouldn’t be. But then nothing would have been.

Harry buried the drifter in a shallow grave using his own collapsible shovel, and strode out of the woods into the Tuesday dawn with an aching back and blistered hands and a throat full of sour failure.

Her mother waited for her, and Maisie’s mother, and when they saw that she was alone, Mrs. Grant began to wail.

The trees said to her: come back soon.

Now Harry walks with the woods-thing that wears Maisie Grant’s flesh, hand-in-hand in the greenish light. (Over the past months it’s begun to touch her more and more, and she hasn’t found the voice to ask it to stop because she fears it will actually listen to her.) From far away they look almost ordinary, just two girls in the woods. Sideways Hansel and Gretel, ersatz Snow White and Rose Red. It leads her on a long and winding path, over streams and through thickets, skirting copses. She knows where she is, of course. A witch always knows. What she doesn’t know is quite where they’re going.

At last they come to a clearing, blasted and bare, an unnatural miniature wasteland in the heart of the forest. It stinks of rot; where the land is not bare dirt, broken-trunked dead trees stand. The wrongness of this is a coiling physical thing that punches up through her stomach and strikes at her heart. Her power buzzes angrily, shaping itself long sharp spines in answer.

Nauseated, Harry grips the antler-and-deadwood amulet around her neck so hard the points press little dimples into her skin, grounding herself with the pain, and raises a shield around herself. It cuts the feeling. Not enough, but she can work with it. Harry steps forwards. The woods-thing lets go of her hand, and shrinks into the shadow of the trees.

She never thought that she would think this, but it looks afraid. What has happened here?

In the center of the clearing lies a tangle of coyotes, bloodied, eyeless, mouths open in futile, soundless snarls. Even dead the bodies tug at the eye–they run into each other, with no clear ending or joins; they’re all one thing. They cast no shadow.

This was a woods-thing. Was.

“No,” she says, “No — “

“Yes,” says her woods-thing.

“What did this? Do you know?” Her voice is shaking. She lets it.

“One of us,” says her woods-thing. The anger and disgust in its voice are crawling dark things, tangled up and rusted-sharp. “One of us.”



“Help us.” It holds out its hands to her, pleading. “Please. Kill it and we’ll give you whatever you want.”

She’s being asked to answer an abomination with an abomination. And worse, she knows her decision already.

Harry steps out of the clearing, and she takes her woods-thing’s hands between her own and says, “Yes.”

She takes samples, blood and bone and earth and wood, and pictures with her phone. So many pictures that she has to start deleting older ones to make room. Then she plants bundles of green twigs (asked for, paid for, freely given) and tufts of her own short dark hair tied with twine taken from her pack around the perimeter of the clearing. Nothing will get in. If something rises, it will not get out.

She hopes.

Then she texts her mother and Amy Dove, who’s several miles north on the Fond du Lac reservation. By her own hand will the execution be don — but finding the killer woods-thing, that’s not something she has to do alone. It will go faster with three. And the faster, the better. How long before it kills again? How long before it tries to reach beyond the forest? How strong is it, fed on death?

“Stay here,” her woods-thing says as they reach the edge of the trees, “Don’t go.”

This is normal. It asks her, every time, and every time she refuses it because of course she does. She still lives in Canby no matter what she is. It’s a ritual, by now half-meaningless and comforting.

Now, though, it sounds afraid and on the edge of desperate.

Harry notices that more of them than normal are out — tangled through each other, dogging her steps. The trees around them are heavy with other woods-things, clad in shadow and leaves and mud.

They’re not meant to die, and there one of their own has gone sideways and awfully wrong, and so, against their nature, they’re trooping. And hers (since when is it hers? Since she needed a way to differentiate between it and the others in her head.) wants her to stay with it. For comfort. For safety.

It would be sweet, almost, if the heavy sick wrongness wasn’t still lingering in her gut.

“I’ll come back,” Harry says. And then, “Here.” She pulls the chain of her amulet over her head and loops it around her woods-thing’s neck. “There you go. Insurance.”

They stare at each other for a lightning-charged moment, and then it hugs her hard and fast and awkward. On instinct her arms come up, and for a second she hugs it back, breathing in its flowers-growth-sweat smell.

Then it melts away, and so do the others, and she heads out into the field.

pines3The three witches hold their council of war in Canby’s best diner. Harry’s mother looks as she always does: hair falling out of its bun, clothes rumpled, glasses sliding down her nose. Amy is straight from her job as the rez’s public defender, pantsuit impeccable, scrolling forearm tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of her crisp white shirt. Over thick black coffee and cherry pie, amid the noise of conversation and the crackly stuck-on-the-sixties jukebox, they pool what they know. Or rather, what Harry knows.

Amy sums up their feelings with a succinct, “This is shit.”

“Tell me about it,” Harry says, in a tone that more accurately conveys fuck the universe.

“Language,” Evelyn adds mildly, and, “I have a search algorithm I can adapt for you.”

“And I’ve got a devil’s trap I can change,” says Amy. “Tell you what, I’ll stay overnight.”

Absentmindedly, Evelyn makes a sign with her fingers, and in response her phone texts Michael, telling him to make up the guest bedroom.

“Once we’ve got it,” Amy says.

“Once I’ve got it,” Harry says, “It’s my job. I catch it. I kill it.”

“How?” They ask in stereo.

“Greek fire,” says Harry. “Reg knows a guy who knows a girl in Duluth. I can keep a lid on it.” She’s only half as certain of that as she sounds, but she must destroy it on her first try and there is little Greek fire won’t burn. A woods-thing, born of trees, will stand no chance no matter how strong it is. Containing it after —

With a sort of grim humor, Harry thinks, I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

“Are you sure,” says her mother. “About doing this alone? I know I can’t help, but Amy — “

“Mom,” says Harry. “No. This isn’t the kind of thing you can split.”

“She’s right,” says Amy. “It ain’t the Ides of March, here. Doing it together won’t make it less…”

“Shit,” supplies Harry. It’s easier to say that than to call it what it is.

Amy shrugs.

“Sweetheart, I don’t like the idea.” Evelyn squeezes her hand. “I want you to be safe, you know that.”

“I know, Mom.” Harry manages a smile at her. “But witching isn’t safe. You know that.”

“Oh, save us from overly clever daughters,” grumbles Evelyn, but worry still edges her voice. “Finish your pie.”

Dutifully, Harry finishes her pie, and tries not to think about what she’s going to do.

A day later, in the small hours of the morning, she rides shotgun in Amy’s car, a small pot of Greek fire balanced carefully on her knees. They drive on through the misty darkness, the world narrowed to the sedan and the half-circle of cracked asphalt illuminated by the headlights.

Amy says, “What’ll you do, after?”

Because she won’t be the same.

“Dunno.” Harry smooths one finger around the rim of the pot. “Stay, if they’ll have me.”

“Will they?”

“They asked me to.”

Amy shoots her a sideways glance. “They don’t think like us. Sometimes I think you’re too close to them, kid. You think they’ll be grateful, when you’re done? Maybe you’re right. But maybe they’ll kill you for it.”

Harry thinks of her woods-thing lacing its fingers through hers, and she thinks of the shadows weaving behind her footsteps and the gleaming wolf-eyes that follow her sometimes, yellow and utterly alien, and knows Amy’s right.

“Be careful, is what I’m saying.”

“I will.”

The forest at noon is no less dangerous than the forest at midnight, but the sun plays through the leaves and the birds sing, and it seems warmer, somehow. Harry knows that’s just her, but she takes comfort from it. God knows she’ll need it.

At the very edge of the trees, her mother draws her into a fierce hug. Harry breathes in the smell of faded perfume and old books and lavender conditioner and holds Evelyn tight against her. When they part, Evelyn folds a thin silver chain that glitters in a way that has nothing to do with light into her palm. Amy claps her on the shoulder and hands her a tiny burnished-bronze eight-pointed star. The word here is etched on the bottom in tiny Anishinaabeg letters.

Harry does not say the words if I don’t come back. Reg knows she loves him. Dad knows she loves him. Her mother will know what to tell them.

She says, “Thank you.”

And she walks into the woods, and she doesn’t look back.

Soon they close around her.

Soon after that, there is a woods-thing at her heels, and another, and another. Fox-shaped and thicket-shaped and twisting into her shadow. A stumbling bear; a silent shine-eyed moose.

Hers isn’t there.

It isn’t there.

And then, from much too far away, it screams.

The scream isn’t so much a sound as a feeling, shooting up from the forest like a new tree, piercing Harry to the marrow. She hits the forest floor on hands and knees, gasping, retching, and then forces herself to her feet and runs like she’s never run before. Desperation burns new-star hot inside her. Half of it’s hers and half of it’s theirs, spilling over into her through the winding roots of her bond with the forest. The silver chain of the search spell jumps and stutters in her hands and she keys it to her woods-thing and lets it go.

Witch and woods-things sprint through the woods. They bend the world around them by sheer collective will alone, shifting trees and roots and copses and thickets to make a straight path to the growing weight on the skin of the world. Harry can feel it. It’s starting to make her sick, that heavy dark wrongness that wants and wants. Endlessly hungry; endlessly ferocious. A rabid animal with magic twisted in it.

The woods spit them out into another blasted clearing. And there it is, a shifting mass of shadows and roots and what looks like the drifter’s corpse that turns the eye away. There are teeth in there, and a glint of sunlight-through-leaves, and thick gloppy sap. It’s swelled up like a spider full of blood from its first kill.

Harry’s woods-thing fights, stretching past the limits of the skin it wears. It’s not girl-shaped, not quite, not anymore. Fingers have crooked into branches, feet into hooves; where it’s been cut it leaks sap mixed unevenly with blood. Whip-thin thorny branches hang from its curls. It opens its mouth, wide and wolf-toothed, and screams again. Now it’s a sound, ragged, high, sharp and piercing.

Harry can feel the bright little point of her amulet around its neck.

That’s something to work with.

She draws the pot of Greek fire from her coat and holds it at her side, and with her other hand holds the eight-pointed binding star.

One chance. She’s got one chance to pull her woods-thing out of there, and if she doesn’t make it she’ll have to kill them both, because it can’t be allowed to eat her woods-thing and grow stronger. The knowledge is a stone in the pit of her stomach.

No time to brood, though.

“Hang on!” Harry winds up and softball-pitches the binding star into the center mass of the killer woods-thing and yanks, as hard as she can, on the power of her amulet.

pines4The dead earth contracts under her woods-thing, pulling it back. It scrambles towards her, hands outstretched and growing, and loops its fingers around her forearm. She pulls. It’s heavy as lead, heavy as a lake. The killer woods-thing throws out feelers of shadow, clinging to it, but the shadows curl up and die at the edges of an invisible wall. Still it hangs on.

Hers, it’s hers, this monster-thing can’t have it.

“Mine,” she growls, and braces her feet, and gives one last great pull.

With a tearing pop, it comes out of the trap she made and falls at her feet.

It’ll live, she thinks with a stab of relief, but this isn’t over.

The killer woods-thing roars, and, with all her might, Harry throws the pot of Greek fire at its heart.

White-hot flames lick the sky. Heat sears her front, and an awful ratcheting scream drills into her ears, the sound of an animal in pain multiplied a dozen times over and folded back in on itself. The woods-things behind her scream too. Hers grabs her hand with fingers nearing human.

Tree-tendrils scratch and scrabble at the edges of the trap, desperate, seeking. Slowly, they crisp and curl and die. The screaming stops.

And her power snaps and cracks, turning inwards, clawing at her insides and slipping out at the seams. It leaks from her mouth and her nose and streams down from her eyes. Harry’s knees give out and she falls.

(She knew this was coming, she knew, but she wasn’t ready.)

She hits the ground and barely feels it. Someone is shouting at her. Someone is prodding at the sick sharp place where her magic is. Someone is calling, “Harry! Harry Kang!”

The words mean nothing that she can understand.

“Harry! Witch!” A slap cracks across her face. The sting is muted. “The fire is escaping, get up, stop it — Harry, please!”

Hot air rolls over her, intense as a kiln.

Her power curls inside her. Nausea stirs her stomach.

Harry, please.

Slowly, she cuts her way through the fog to rationality; realizes that she has to get up, but can’t quite grasp why. She gets one palm flat against the ground, then the other. Then she gets to her knees.

Then she sees the Greek fire eating its way through the barrier.

Oh. That’s why.

With a rush, she comes back to herself. Everything is too much, battling for her attention, scratching her mind raw. The broken pieces of her magic stab at her and at the fire alternately. She’s going to vomit. She’s going to pass out.

She’s going to quell that fire if she dies doing it.

(She really hopes she’s not going to die.)

Fire is hungry, always. There’s no way to feed it to satisfaction; it’ll always want more. But she can starve it to death, if she’s careful.

It’s so big, looming over them all like a wave about to break, and she can feel the weakness running in her bones. Harry swallows and gathers what she’s got left.

It will burn air. It will even burn on water.

But what’s left of her magic —

Maybe not that.

Harry snaps the trap open wide, and holds out her arms to the fire, and draws it inside her.

It burns all the way down her throat and into her stomach, and it fills her to bursting. It hurts so much, worse than the time she broke her arm jumping off the barn roof, worse than the time she left her mind wedged open and spent a week full of everyone else’s dreams, worse than the time she left herself inside a deer while it died.

She swathes the fire with every shard of power she has, cutting it to ribbons and smothering the individual pieces. Tiny sparks escape and bite at her.

Her fingertips start to smoke.

Still she goes on.

The burning climbs her arms, and she breathes out a long stream of woodsmoke with a whimper on its heels. An arm winds around her waist; shadows clump around her legs. The foxes and the moose press into her, their forms blurring. They open the heart of the forest to her.

But the influx of power is not enough. Stretching, choking on a scream, she draws on a year of her life, two, three. Four.

The fire inside her goes out, and Harry falls again, falls a very long way.

When she wakes, it’s to still greenness, and waxy-skinned hands tipping water down her throat.

A bone-deep exhaustion weighs her down. The world is dull and far away and she feels sick, still. Everything blurs. Her tongue is swollen and useless. And something–something else, something worse, is very wrong with her. What is it?

Her woods-thing says, “You’re awake.”

No, am I? she wants to say, but the words don’t come.

Her power is gone entirely, she realizes. She’s empty, drained dry. How is she alive?

Her woods-thing brushes the backs of its knuckles butterfly-wing-light over her cheek. “Do you even know how much you gave us? Everything. You brave idiot. What will I tell your mother? What will I tell your bird-witch?”

What’s going to happen to her?

“But we’ll take care of you,” her woods-thing goes on.

The earth is softening under her, slowly but surely. Swallowing her down. Peace steals over her.

Artificial. Imposed. The woods are doing this.

Harry licks her lips. Manages to whisper, “What are you doing?” Her voice is a barely-coherent rasp.

“Sending you to sleep.”

“For how long?”

“Shhh.” It lowers her to the ground gently and stretches out beside her, curling an arm possessively around her middle. “For as long as you need,” Harry’s woods-thing whispers in her ear. “Until you’re well again.”

Oh. That sounds nice.

The earth closes over them.

She sinks into sleep.

Months later, as autumn marches onward to winter, Amy Dove and Evelyn Kang stand beside a long low mound. Despite the cold, despite the frost, despite the pine-shadow it lies in, it grows with tiny blue-white flowers and nettles and tangled ivy. A many-eyed, many-jointed fox lies lazily atop it, watching them, motionless but for the lazy flick of its tail.

The woods are quiescent.

“I wish I could see her,” says Evelyn. “I wish Michael could.” He knows, but he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that Harry will wake again, a line of code rescued from the cache, a bulb flowering in spring after a long winter. To him, she’s just gone. Reg knows better, but Reg is so far away.

Amy sighs. “Me too.”

They are silent a moment. Then they turn from the sleeping witch, and leave the woods whispering behind them.

In four years’ time, while summer rages green and hot, one short-nailed olive hand breaks up through the dirt of the mound.


kathleenK.M. Carmien is currently a full­time student in Princeton, New Jersey, where she attends Rutgers University. She currently reviews books for SFRevu. This is her first published story.

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Even In This Skin, A.C. Wise

Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

skin1“How are you doing?”

“Same old.” Jamie offers a lopsided almost-smile, lifting one shoulder to match.

Shadows tuck beneath his skin. His gaze cuts right, a pointed look to the empty seat beside Mar; neither of them are surprised, but it still hurts.

“Did you bring me the shiv I asked for? Or the cake with the file baked inside?” Jamie looks pointedly away from the empty chair, smile broadening into a grin, but one without real feeling.

The joke falls as flat, same as the last three times. Mar places a pack of cigarettes on the table.

“Mom did ask about you at least. She wanted to know if you’re eating okay.”

“Nice of her to call you to check.”

“It was an email.”

“Three squares a day, since she asked.” Jamie pats his stomach.

It’s flatter than hers; his jumpsuit hangs loose around an already narrow frame. His hair is buzzed short, and there’s a new mark above his ear, dark ink beneath the shadow of stubble.

At fourteen, with Jamie sixteen, Mar had come down the basement stairs to find Jamie’s friend Val giving him a homemade tattoo on the inside of his left forearm with a broken pen. Most of the tattoo had washed away, not deep enough to last, just deep enough to leave a faint scar from infected skin Jamie couldn’t stop scratching. This is how they’ll know you’re one of us, Val had said.

She doesn’t look away quick enough, but Jamie seems unfazed. “You like?”

He turns to show the stars marching crookedly up the back of his skull. At least none of them look infected.


Her hand is already halfway across the table between them, wanting to touch the stars. She pulls her hand back, and Jamie’s smile falters.

“They look great,” Mar says.

Hurt flickers in his eyes, but he schools his expression, the smile coming back at half force.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Jamie says. “Promise. I’m done with that shit. Really. They’re just stars.”

“I know.” Mar answers as quick as she can, but it’s not fast enough.

At sixteen, with Jamie eighteen, the flat crack of a gun -a sound like a branch breaking, like a fracture dividing their lives into then and now and no way to build a bridge between them – is indelibly imprinted on Mar’s mind. She ran, feet thudding on the pavement, trying to be as swift as she’d been when they were young and running through the woods, but she was too late to tell who fired the shot. Val and Rico and Tommy and Jamie all stood around the boy on the ground, and Jamie looked at her with stricken eyes, I didn’t do it, Mar, I swear.

Jamie pulls the cigarettes across the table.

skin4“Don’t spend them all in one place.” It’s her turn for a joke that falls flat, smile feeling tender and bruised.

She plows on and they talk about nothing as the time ticks down. Then chairs scrape back from tables.

“Same time next week?”

“I’ll be here.”

Mar’s heart turns over, wanting to escape; only the comforting press of the binder keeps her heart in place. She leans in for a quick hug, tight and hard, because it’s easier than looking Jamie in the eye.

“Be good.” She brushes lips against his cheek.

At the door, Mar looks back. The angle of sunlight slanting through the barred windows washes out Jamie’s face. She steps outside, leaving her brother and the other faceless men in the prison behind.

A ghost dogs her footsteps across the parking lot, the echo of a gunshot. I didn’t do it, Mar. She’s never doubted him, but he still chose. He put the gun in his hand at some point; his fingerprints were on it. Val and Rico and Tommy’s fingerprints were on it, too, and none of them were fast enough when it came time to run. Mar hurries her footsteps, doing her best to outrun the ghosts, though she knows she’ll never be fast enough either.

At six and eight, Mar and Jamie are in the woods behind their house, running. Even this young, they understand their mother doesn’t care if or when they come home. They are hungry, not just because the groceries haven’t been bought for the week, and their mother forgot to leave money for a pizza before she went out. It’s a different kind of hunger, tied to the one in their bellies, but separate. They fill it with wild motion, the sleek burn of their muscles and the relentless pulse-beat of their footsteps in the dark.

In their future, Jamie will try cutting. Mar will be the one to find him, flimsy disposable razor in hand, blood plinking against the white curve of the sink. Later still, Mar will try starving, something she can control even though food is scarce. But with no one to see, and no one to care but each other, they will give up these things. They will revert to the knowledge they have now – that their hunger is deeper than skin or food, and they will learn different ways to cope.

But for now, at six and eight, they run. Tucked beneath the leaves and roots closest to the cul-de-sac where they live, there are rotting tires, broken bottles, worn-out porno magazines. Mar vaults over a fallen log, crossing a boundary where, if she looks back, she won’t be able to see the softly-glowing crescent of houses anymore.

Between one heartbeat and the next, the night shifts. The space between the trees thickens to blue-black, then the purple of a bruise. The trunks stretch taller, slender and silver smooth. Footsteps drum around her, a steady rain of shifting, fleet shadows.

Hooves and horns, wings and claws. Skin. Hybrid, impossible creatures. All running toward something Mar doesn’t understand, but wants so badly she can taste it, a salted sweetness on her tongue.

Then a flat crack, the sound of a branch breaking, draws her up short. Mar stumbles, knees barking leaf-rot and hands catching her fall. The shadows slipping past her fall to silence, leaving only the drum of her pulse in her ears. A shape moves ahead of her in the dark.


No answer. Light spills between tree trunks, outlining a tall, slender figure. Not Jamie. Not human? Mar doesn’t know how she knows this; the truth of it is simply down in her bones. A catch of breath and Mar realizes the figure is animal and human, bound in one flesh.

For a moment, her heart refuses to beat, and when it starts again, the tempo is strange. There are two hearts inside her skin, and for once, the hunger in her belly is still.

Mar stretches out a hand. Another crack, a bone-snapping sound of more branches breaking as Jamie blunders through the woods, calling her name.


She can’t see her brother, only hear him wading through undergrowth, clumsy feet tangling in low branches, roots, and dead leaves. The impulse to shout go away rockets through her. The shadows seep back, retreating. She wants to beg them to stay, but Jamie is ruining everything. Her pulse rabbits, and a terrible thought strikes her. If Mar curls herself small, if she holds very still, Jamie won’t see her; she can stay and hide forever in this magical version of the woods that aren’t the woods she left behind.

“Mar?” Panic edges Jamie’s voice.

“I’m here.” Guilt twists and she jumps up, heart slamming back into its normal rhythm.

Jamie rushes toward her. The tall, thin figure is gone. All the shadows with their horns and hooves and feathers vanish. Cold seeps in around the edges of the night. Mar shivers, and Jamie throws an arm around her shoulders. He’s limping, and there’s a long gash on his shin.

“A branch. I tripped,” he says.

Mar lets him lean on her, despite being younger and shorter, taking his weight.

“Come on, let’s go home.”

She looks back one more time, but the light between the trees is only gray now; dishwater-dirty, touched orange by the city’s glow burning through pollution. Headlights sweep by beyond the trees, and the woods are finite again, bounded by the neighborhood on three sides. No mystical shadows pace them in the dark, no two-hearted creature waits for Mar to take its hand.

With her arm around Jamie’s waist, and the weight of his body against hers, they walk slowly home.

The line outside the club inches forward. Mar jams her hands into her armpits, trying not to shiver. The men around her – and it is mostly men – are under-dressed. They breathe steam in the cold night air. She imagines them stamping hooves. Bulls. Minotaurs. Ready to run.


She’s packing tonight, but the strut isn’t there. She keeps thinking of Jamie, lost and falling behind, his face washed out by the sun in the prison visitation room. She fingers the outline of her phone in her jacket pocket. There’s an unanswered message from her boss, trying to change Mar’s mind. Before she left work on Friday, he offered her a new position, a transfer, with a higher salary and relocation costs paid.

Mar turned it down, hunger gnawing in her belly as she did. A new city, a new life, but it would mean leaving Jamie behind. A half a dozen times tonight, she’s pulled out her phone to erase the message. A half dozen times she’s been poised to call her boss and turn in her resignation. She’s been sick, her mind running around it in circles. Tonight, she doesn’t want to think about anything at all.

A fug of cigarette smoke and pot hangs in the air. Light from the club’s neon sign tints the bodies around her cool blue. It highlights the bulk of shoulders, the line of jaws. Looking at them stamps an ache into Mar’s skin. At the same time, she can’t stop herself from scanning the crowd for someone she recognizes, but doesn’t know. Someone like her who isn’t just one thing, but everything. Someone who will understand.

Mar reaches the front of the line, fumbling bills into the bouncer’s hand with chilled fingers. Inside, lights strobe, shocking her blind. Then everything kicks loose all at once. Bodies pack tight, sweat-sheened and writhing. Heat pulses from Mar’s groin to her throat; the bass thumps inside her ribs, replacing her breath and heartbeat. She’s un-fleshed, her whole body a raw nerve, open to the night.

She doesn’t bother with a drink. She flings herself into the fray. It’s as good as running. The only important parts of her body are the muscle and sinew moving her limbs, her feet pounding hard against the floor. She doesn’t have to care about moving forward, or turning back, making a choice. There’s only here and now.

The bass-thump moves her blood to mirror her feet flying over the forest floor, over fallen logs, dodging roots, showing her teeth to the night. She’s not looking behind to see Jamie’s eyes, wide in the mirror, blood plinking against white porcelain. There’s no ink on his skin, and she doesn’t have to ask how he suddenly has extra cash to buy a car that isn’t a piece of shit, get her new clothes – tight layers, sports bras doubled up, one backward one forward, bandages, and finally the binder, anything to change the curve of her body. There’s only running, and if she’s fast enough, the gunshot sound will never come. She’ll outrun it this time. Outrun the stricken look in her brother’s eyes, wordlessly saying I need you, help me, please don’t leave me behind.

A hand touches Mar’s arm. She whirls, lips peeled back from feral teeth. The man flashes teeth in turn, mistaking her expression for a smile.

“Buy you a drink?”

She has to lip-read the words for the ear-shattering music. Mar crashes back into her own too-human skin, dizzy. The hand on her arm becomes a steadying one, holding her up.

“You look like you really need one.” He screams the words next to her ear.

Without waiting for her answer, the man guides her to the bar. Mar sips the blue-sugar sweetness pressed into her hand. It steadies her long enough to take in a square jaw, frosted hair, eyes that would still be blue even out from beneath the flashing lights.

Mar forces herself to smile. It’s only slightly quieter away from the dance floor. They shout an exchange of names. Chad – at least she can put a word to her regret, if it comes to that. A second drink, one she doesn’t remember asking for, and more, continually finding their way into her hand. Alcohol blurs the edges of the night; she forgets to be afraid.

The reassuring bulge between her legs makes her widen her stance, broaden and square her shoulders. In the flickering light, she can believe she is the wild, changeable thing she wants to be. Narrow hips, sharp cheekbones, a creature straddling two worlds. Chad’s hand strays to the small of her back. His lips find her ear.

“Wanna get out of here?” His breath raises hairs on the back of her neck.

The music steals her words, but she follows him, sweaty fingers tangled in his. They stumble into the alley behind the club. It’ll be okay, Mar promises herself, directing Chad’s hands carefully, her hips, her shoulders, her ass. Keeping him away from her shirt, the binder wrapped tight around her chest. Keeping him away from the front of her pants for any touch longer than the faintest, teasing brush of fingers against denim. Then she’s on her knees, his fingers in her hair as he groans, thrusting into her mouth. This is good, it’s safe, she can do this.

Then he says, “Wait.”

Mar’s stomach flips, sick with excitement. Chad’s eyes are liquid, unfocused. “I don’t want to come yet.”

The husk in his voice suggests otherwise, but with remarkable self-restraint, he pulls her up.

skin5“I want to feel you.”

His fingers go for her fly, surer than hers, despite the drink. Mar’s whole body is a string, taut. She almost lets him. Because, oh god, she fucking wants this. Just bodies. Contact. Flesh against flesh. Pleasure the only definition between them, and no need for Mar to be this or that, to choose.

Her mouth crushes his – the taste an echo of too-sweet drinks and the memory of ash from a cigarette hours old. Mar wants to melt into him as his hands slide lower on her body, but panic slams adrenaline through her brain. The bulge in her pants feels wrong, not because it isn’t her, but because it is still a solid choice. It defines her and pins her when she wants to be liquid, quicksilver, wild and strange.

“No.” She slaps Chad’s hands away, shoves him hard.

His eyes widen in confusion. Mar wraps her arms around her body, holding herself in. Her jaw clenches tight, tensed for a strike. Whatever he thought he would find when he unwrapped her, she won’t give him the chance. If the disappointment of not knowing is too much for him, maybe she can define herself by pain instead. Bruised flesh is still flesh. Bones cracked in rage are only bones. Everyone is red on the inside, no matter their shape otherwise.

Chad shakes his head in disbelief, stuffing himself back into his jeans.

“Fuck you, then.” He slams her with his shoulder as he moves back into the club, but nothing more.

Mar sags against the wall, letting the bricks take her weight. The trembling starts at her feet, making its way up her body until she’s clenching her teeth against the enormity of it. As much as she wills them not to, tears come, and she’s a mess of salt, wiping at her face.

It’s a moment before she registers the scent of cigarette smoke. Not soon enough to brace herself against the soft voice that comes in its wake.

“What if you could have everything you wanted?”

Mar jumps, scrubbing her eyes until black spots burst behind them. The owner of the cigarette melts out of the shadows – tall, sharp-featured, and with gold eyes that must be a trick of the light.


“Everything you want.” Two slender fingers, holding the cigarette and trailing smoke, point at Mar’s chest.

Mar’s breath stalls. Even though the club’s blue neon still shines on them, the stranger’s hair is shockingly red.

The ghost that has been dogging her since leaving the prison crashes into her. Mar is back in the woods, looking through blue twilight at an impossible figure, tall and thin, a flickering creature refusing to hold its shape. She blinks, shaking her head. Too much alcohol.

“Where did you come from?” Mar looks around, pulse skittering; was she being watched the whole time she was on her knees, the whole time she cried?

“I smelled your tears.”

The stranger closes the distance so smoothly, Mar doesn’t have time to step back. A tongue sweeps over the wetness of her cheeks like a dog licking her pain away. But the hands framing Mar’s face and holding it still are human.

“Honey,” the stranger says. “Your tears taste like honey.”

Mar shakes her head again, huffs a sound that isn’t quite a word. A hollow ache presses against the back of her eyes.

skin3“I’m Fox.”

“Okay,” Mar says, voice squeezing up from the depths of her.

For the first time since she started wearing it, her binder crushes her. Or maybe it’s only her heart beating too hard in her chest, her lungs going haywire. It occurs to her, over the frantic drum of her body that she doesn’t know whether the stranger said ‘Fox’ or ‘a fox.’

“Okay,” she says again.

The drinks catch up with her and Mar turns away, dropping to her knees to be sick this time. A hand touches her back, comforting, or merely keeping her in place. After a moment, a napkin is offered. Mar wipes her face, cleans herself up as best she can, and climbs shakily to her feet.

“What do you want?” Mar asks.

“It’s what you want that’s the question. Do you know?”

She’s about the say she wants to be left alone. The words are like her boss’s, still saved on her phone. What do you want, Mar? You need to think about your future, and what’s best for you. The world won’t wait for forever. Don’t let opportunity pass you by. Before Mar can say anything, Fox steps close again.

Lips graze Mar’s jaw, sharp teeth behind them. Fox’s cigarette vanishes, leaving hands free to roam. Mar braces for the panic, but it doesn’t come this time. Fox’s touch is gentle, a question Mar’s flesh shivers to answer. There’s a scent like fallen leaves, like earth, tucked just under the cigarette smoke. Beneath her clothes, Mar’s skin pulls taut, her bones shifting, her body hollowing and swelling in accordance with each movement Fox makes.

Mar catches her breath, an audible sound. Fox draws back, amusement shining in gold eyes, a half-smile resting upon lips. The shivery buzz recedes in the absence of Fox’s touch. A cigarette flicks back into place between long fingers, conjured from thin air.

“Shall we find out?” Fox asks.

Mar doesn’t trust herself with words, not yet. Instead, she follows; Fox leads. The streets twist away, the city becoming unfamiliar. In Mar’s peripheral vision, houses and buildings stretch tall into the sky, thinning into smooth trunks with branches and leaves lost deep among the stars. She stumbles over a tangle of roots, or her own feet. Streetlights blur in the afterglow of rain, making everything shine.

Through a door, up stairs, and through another door into a messy, close space smelling faintly of animal musk and juniper berries. Mar allows Fox to lay her down on a bed, push her into a nest of covers. She’s dizzy, but in a pleasant, dream-like way – past sickness and back to buzzed. The edges of everything are rounded and vague. Safe.

She lets Fox undress her. Fox sets the prosthetic aside. At least Mar thinks so; a ghost weight lingers beneath her legs, stirring to heat and proximity. Fox leaves the binder in place – even when everything else is stripped away – with a preternatural understanding that it is essential to Mar. It was her first act of defiance against the shape she was born into, her last line of defense against the world. This simple act leaves Mar shaking with gratitude. Gratitude and desire. The shaking doesn’t stop as Fox’s hands trace over her again. Tremors wrack her body, tiny earthquakes smoothed or awoken by Fox’s hands.

The world blurs further; not just the edges, but reality itself loses cohesion. Mar’s skin and bones are liquid honey, made soft by Fox’s touch. Malleable. Her flesh changes, solid one moment, rising to Fox’s hand, hard flesh to be grasped; concave the next, so Fox’s fingers sink into her and Mar answers with a shuddering gasp.

The only thing Mar is certain of is that Fox’s eyes are indeed gold; it wasn’t a trick of the light. Then Mar surrenders, ceases thinking at all. Nothing matters but muscle and blood. Like dancing. Like running. Pure motion. She lets her body talk, scream, and arch into Fox’s touch.

When the shuddering is done, Fox reaches for a pack of cigarettes, showing shocks of red hair sprouting from beneath armpits. Gold eyes assess Mar; Mar gazes back, blinks. Fox’s chest is smooth, but swelling slightly where breasts might be. Or not. Fox’s nipples are small, hard, dark like winter berries. Mar cups a hand over one, then runs her palm downward. Her breath snags, thrilling to find a whole line of equally hard bumps beneath her touch. Fox pushes her away, not unkind, but business-like.

“Now,” Fox says, breathing a stream of smoke. “Do you know what you want?”


She wants to melt under hands that touch her the way Fox does. Always. She wants to feel her bones stretched like taffy, her whole being infinitely malleable and capable of remaking itself from one moment to the next. She wants to flicker and run and never have to choose.

“The world doesn’t work that way. Not quite.” Fox places a finger against Mar’s forehead, between her eyes, smiles sly.

Mar squeezes her eyes closed, lashes rimmed with tears harder than the ones she shed before. These are like frost, unfalling.

“Not choosing is still a choice, but every body has to take a path, sooner or later. Every choice comes with a cost, but if you don’t step onto the path, you run the risk of being dragged along it.”

It sounds like a fairy tale, but Mar knows that isn’t what Fox means. In the woods, she chose; she turned toward the city and a wild, strange thing slipped away from her. Jamie chose to put ink on his skin, a gun in his hand. It’s not as simple as trading the name of a child for straw spun into gold.

Jamie sits behind her eyelids, small in his prison jumpsuit, shoulders curled inward and ink marking his skin – the image printed there like a bruise. It isn’t fair. Any choice she makes seems to leave Jamie behind. But if she doesn’t choose, if she stays here forever, then she’ll curl inward too. She will grow smaller and fainter every day until finally, she disappears.

“I don’t know.” Mar breathes out, opens her eyes.

Fox rolls slightly to face her, propped on one elbow.

“I could eat your heart.” The words are matter-of-fact. Mar stares as if the words will show in the curls of smoke circling Fox’s red, red hair, waiting for them to make sense.

“Think how much easier it would be to go through the world heartless.” Fingers trace the edges of Mar’s binder, but do nothing to pull it away.

Gold eyes watch Mar, unblinking. If any tears should taste like honey, they should be from those eyes, not Mar’s, but she can’t imagine Fox crying.

Is that what it means to be heartless? Never in danger of tears, but never in danger of love either? Mar studies Fox’s narrow face, the impossibly sharp cheekbones. A wild animal, a myth. Both. Neither.

The suddenness of Fox’s body over hers startles Mar. Fox’s teeth rest against the edge of her binder; gold eyes pin her in place.

“I could bite through,” Fox says, “and you wouldn’t feel a thing.”

“Before, or after?” Mar says.

She means the words as a joke, but they don’t sound like one.

A shadow flickers beneath the surface of Fox’s gaze. Hunger. Wanting. A space that can’t be filled devouring by hearts; an emptiness too big and complicated to name.

skin6“Yes,” Fox says.

Mar’s pulse trips, insistent at her wrists, between her legs, in her throat. Fear, real, sweeter than any she’s felt before.

Her body responds. Heartless. Yes, she wants this. But she needs time to think, and right now, with Fox’s lips grazing her belly, and moving lower still, she doesn’t want to think at all.

“You look happier than I’ve seen you in a long time,” Jamie says.

The hard plastic seat cups her uncomfortably. A hum of voices surrounds them, a susurrus of conversations half-held, everyone saying too little and too much in the short window of time they’re allowed. Her cheeks warm.

“You finally meet someone?” Jamie’s grin is sly.

But there’s an edge to it; the corner of his mouth quivers. Guilt needles her. She hasn’t made a choice, but sitting here feels like a lie, like she’s hiding something good and secret when Jamie has nothing at all. Jamie runs a hand over the stubble field of his scalp. One leg bounces, restless, under the table.

“Are you okay?” Mar leans forward.

“You know me, I’m always okay.” The lines of Jamie’s smile dig deeper, determined, like he’s got something to prove. The stretch of his skin shows his skull. Mar’s heart cracks, her binder too tight again.

She reaches across the table, catching Jamie’s fidgeting hands.


Her voice fails. She can’t look him in the eye, not just because she’s afraid he’ll see the shadow of her leaving, the possibility that she’ll choose something that will pull their worlds apart. She’s afraid she’ll see a shadow in his eyes, too. Doubt. Guilt. And some sick part of her wants to see it there. She wants to know he chose, that some action led him here and not random chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Would it make it easier if Jamie confessed? Could she walk away with a clean conscience? No. Jamie would still be written on her heart, her brother, no matter what he did or didn’t do. If she lets Fox devour her heart, what happens to Jamie?

“Don’t,” Jamie says before she can even try to go further. “One of us should be happy, Mar.”

At the pressure of his fingers on hers, Mar can’t breathe. She closes her eyes. They’re running together in the dark. The smell of churned-up leaves, the trees lengthening around her, the light bruising to a new color. His legs are longer than hers, but hers carry her ahead. A branch cracks under his weight; Mar’s heart cracks. Jamie trips, tangles, and Mar is alone. At six and eight, a shadow comes for her, and Mar turns away, back toward home. And now? Her heart cracks again, fracturing beneath the binder, drawing a line through Jamie’s name.

“Just keep running,” Jamie says. “And don’t look back.”

The fact that he knows her so well, can read her thoughts even as Mar hides her eyes makes it hurt all the worse. She forces herself to look at him, she owes him that much.

The smile sliding across his face is almost real this time, shadow-touched, sorrowing, like he understands. Jamie releases her hands, and it’s a moment before the world rights itself.

“Jamie.” Tears thicken the name in her throat. She doesn’t try to go further this time.

When the time is up, Mar hugs Jamie as hard as she can, feeling the bones move under his skin, letting the pressure of her touch say goodbye for her where the word itself refuses to form.

Mar doesn’t know where to find Fox, but she knows where to be in order for Fox to find her. The woods behind the house are a little more unkempt, the trees a little more ragged, a few more years of secrets and discarded things lodged among the roots. Empty bottles, cigarette packs, used condoms. The woods are where people come to test personalities, passions, and vices before they let the world see them.

“You’ve made a decision,” Fox says.

There’s no cigarette to herald the appearance this time. Fox is simply there in the space between two trunks, hands in the pocket of a long coat that nearly brushes the ground.

“What are you?” is what comes out of Mar’s mouth, a question instead of an answer.

“You already know.” Fox’s head tilts to one side.

Fox presses a hand against Mar’s chest. Mar’s pulse thumps beneath her binder and her skin. She imagines sharp teeth, biting through muscle, through bone. Fox promised she wouldn’t feel a thing.

“Are you ready?” Fox asks.

Mar nods. Fox takes her hand, leading her deeper, where the trees grow straighter, less ragged, where stranger secrets than sex and addiction are hidden between their roots and their leaves. There’s a hollow where the earth has been tamped down by the shape of a body curled nose to tail.

The sky is flat white above trees whose branches have been stripped for winter, but shadows still dapple Fox’s cheeks. Broken sunlight filters between the non-existent leaves and a wind warmer than the one Mar left behind stirs over them. The shadows in between the patches of light on Fox’s skin are the color of a bruise.

“Will you let me eat your heart?” Fox asks. “All your wanting, all your pain?”

Dark lashes lower over eyes the color of amber with insects trapped inside. Beneath those lowered lids, something shifts and flickers in the gold crescent of Fox’s eyes. Fragility, hope, love, fear. None of the words sit easy on Fox’s shoulders. They slide around, come back to Mar like a flutter in her belly. Not one thing, but all of them. Old and young, terrible and lovely. Human and not.

What would it mean to let Fox eat her heart? And what kind of creature would want such a thing? A dangerous one? Or simply a tired one, wanting to be hollow instead of full, soft instead of hard? Mar catches her breath. There’s another choice she can make, with a different cost attached to it.

She could eat Fox’s heart instead of offering up her own. It’s what she’s always wanted. Two hearts in one skin. Animal and human. Male and female. Both and neither. Melting and changing, swift and quicksilver and remaking herself at will.

But with the swiftness come the shadows. If she keeps running, she leaves Jamie behind. If he picks up the gun, there’s a flat crack, the world sundered and they can never go back again.

There is infinite patience in Fox’s honey-colored eyes. And impatience as well, jaws snapping at Mar’s heels.

Hunger. Wanting. Mar knows about hollow spaces that cutting and starving can’t fill. She knows that some desires go beyond skin.

She closes her eyes, breathes out. She conjures Jamie’s face, his voice calling to her through the dark of the forest, his eyes fixed on hers saying I didn’t do it, Mar. Lying curled small in the forest, wishing for the shadows to stay, it wasn’t only guilt that needled her to turn back home. It was love. Jamie is her brother, and he’s always known her. He will know her still, even in this skin. Her heart, beating strong and true beside a second heart, wild and strange. Together, they will be enough to fill her. She wants this. She is sure.

Mar opens her eyes.

She presses her lips against Fox’s mouth. She tastes salt and honey. Liquid gold, Fox’s heart melting on her tongue.

Far distant in the woods, there’s a flat sound – a gunshot, a branch breaking, Mar cracking wide. Breathless, she leans back, licking clean the last drops of salty sweetness with her tongue.

“Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”


A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise’s short fiction can be found scattered around publications such as Uncanny, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2015, among other places. In addition to her fiction writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a regular Women to Read: Where to Start column to SF Signal. Her debut collection, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, was published by Lethe Press in 2015. Find her at www.acwise.net or on twitter as @ac_wise


The Mothgate, by J.R. Troughton

19th September

“This is your most important lesson.” 

It was a rifle she handed me. Long and cold, ornately decorated. It was heavier than I’d expected, heavier than the one I had practiced with. She laid the barrel on the low wall before us, and that helped.

“Watch and wait. No mistakes, Elsa. I know what is coming,” she had said, staring off into the trees. “Look for the butterflies. See them, and you’d best be ready to shoot what’s coming behind.”

We knelt behind the crumbling wall, rifles balanced over its brow, peeking over the moss-stained stone and into the dense trees that lay beyond. I tried as best I could to stop my teeth from chattering, but the winter night was bitterly cold. Mama Rattakin didn’t seem to notice. She was staring toward the tree line, pointing with her black and withered hand.

“Look, there.”

I peered into the gloom. Amid the tall trees I saw them, purple butterflies, flitting into view and sparkling in the moonlight. This was the first time I had seen them in the wild, though I recognized them immediately.

I tried to ignore them and slow my breathing. The forest was almost silent, other than the whisper of wind blown leaves and my own thunderous heartbeat. My skirt was soaked through, and my body ached from the hours of waiting. My fingers slid across the trigger, and I chewed at my lip. Daring to glance sideways at Mama Rattakin, it was as if she was made of stone. Perfectly still, other than the gentle sway of her grey hair.

moth-pull1How many times had she been here, I wondered? How many nights had she spent alone, keeping watch with nothing for company but her rifle and the cold stars?

How many had she killed?

A sudden burst of movement came from the trees. I raised my rifle and tracked the fast-moving thing as best I could, though if I had fired, my bullet could have gone anywhere at all.

Mama Rattakin grabbed my rifle barrel and smoothly brought it back down onto the wall. Despite her age, she was still quick as a fox. The owl that had drawn my aim flew into the night.

“There,” she whispered. “They will come from there. Be patient.”

I felt guilty. She had prepared me as best she could, but the pressure of my first guard was getting to me. Shaking my head, I returned to my sights. Mama Rattakin had been more than specific in telling me where to aim. Between the cliff face and the tree with the sheared branches. She would cover the rest of the tree line.

I heard the breaking of twigs and the sound of wet leaves underfoot. White shapes far back in the dense forest, growing closer.

“Be ready, Elsa.” I wasn’t sure if Mama Rattakin had spoken or I.

A gentle tune came floating through the woods. The words of a song that felt familiar, like they had been sung to me as a babe. Just one voice at first, then many. It was a haunting and beautiful harmony, soothing like honey and milk tea. My grip on the rifle loosened.

I felt Mama Rattakin’s hand on my shoulder and tried to focus once more. A fierce bite to my bottom lip helped. I stared into the wood and watched them come.

Emerging from the trees, glistening in the moonlight as they danced, came the witika. Sylph-like figures covered in pale robes who spun and twirled as they sang, stepping closer and closer. Their long white hair flowed like rivers of snow, swaying about their hips. Each of their heads nodded along to the song in perfect synchronicity.

Mama Rattakin’s rifle cracked. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the witikas burst in a shower of snowfall. Another crack, another explosion of white close by. I wanted to turn and help, but Mama had made me swear on my birth mother’s grave that I would only focus on the cliffside path. Her rifle was now dancing its own deadly beat.

A white figure appeared by the cliff face. She was facing away from me, dancing backwards through the mulch, spinning on her tip toes.

I took a deep breath. I aimed for her heart.

I pulled the trigger.

The gun slammed into my shoulder and knocked me to the ground. The kickback was far fiercer than the rifle I had practiced with, and it felt as if I had been kicked by a bull. Scrambling back to my knees, I placed the gun on the wall and looked for the witika. She was gone, and where she had stood was an explosion of white powder. As I scanned the trees, that haunting song continued, only interrupted by the sharp cracks of Mama’s rifle. Every couple of seconds, it sounded again, and with each crack another song died.

Another witika appeared by the cliff face and leapt forward, landing in dainty arabesque. It flicked its hair back, smiling, revealing teeth like glass needles. I aimed once more and fired. I was ready for the kickback this time and saw the bullet pierce the witika’s chest. She seemed to unravel for a moment, like a patchwork quilt coming undone, before bursting in a shower of white powder.

Mama’s rifle continued its own steady beat.

The path I watched was clear. Disobeying Mama’s instructions, I scanned the tree line ahead of us, watching for the next interloper to appear. I had settled now and my hands had stopped shaking. I spied another witika on my path, and I aimed once more. Each time a new witika danced into view, I took my time, as Mama had taught me, and firmly squeezed the trigger.

Snowfall all around.

Eventually, the dancing troop thinned, and the witikas stopped coming. I lowered my rifle and after a few moments of peace, laid it against the wall.

“Wait, Elsa. Always wait.”

Mama kept her gun trained on the forest before us. Her eyes were watering. How long since she had last blinked? Eventually, she too lowered her gun, stood up, and massaged her cramped legs.

“Well done, Elsa. You saw them all unravel?”

“Yes, Mama Rattakin.”

“Every single one?”

“Yes, Mama Rattakin.”

“Good girl. I knew you would. Happy birthday, my pride and joy.”

With that, she picked up her bundle of ammunition, threw it over her shoulder, and began to hobble back down the winding path towards our cabin. I snatched up my gun and chased after her.

Always to the point, Mama Rattakin.


She took me to the Mothgate the following day. It was dull and cold that morning, the sky the color of slate. Trooping through the woods and down past that moss-covered wall, I saw the remains of the witika had vanished during the night.

“Not of our world. Not stable. Never stays long,” Mama Rattakin had muttered. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not.

Weaving through the trees from which the witika had come, we eventually came to the gate. I had studied the pictures in Mama’s lore book and it was unmistakable. Cracked and crumbling, it was an archway of black stone, spotted with purple lichen. The trees immediately on either side were twisted and spotted, stripped of bark and leaning away from the gate, desperately trying to move from their station. Atop the archway was a great stone moth the size of a small dog.

“This is the Mothgate,” Mama whispered. “They come through here when the sun is hidden and the wild things can roam.” She picked up a branch and tossed it through the portal. It landed on decaying leaves. “The gate is of this world now, Elsa, and holds no terrors. Nightfall brings it strength. Nightfall opens the gate and then the monsters come through.”

“Have you ever seen it open, Mama? At night?” I could not imagine those ghastly ballerinas from the night before emerging through this thing. It seemed so mundane.

“Yes, my dear.” Mama Rattakin sat against a rock and pulled out her pipe, wincing as she massaged her crippled leg. Taking a long pull and blowing a finely crafted smoke ring, she watched it drift away as she continued. “Many times, when I was younger and more foolish. I would come closer to guard the gate and try to stop the witikas and the ettersops and tallemaja from coming through. I was a better shot back then.” Tapping her pipe, she raised a hand and pointed at the gate. “I would rest here, rifle ready, and see how quickly I could stop their trespassing. It’s too close though, too risky. The moss wall is a much better place. You should always watch from there.” she stared at me. “Always from the wall. You’re not skilled enough to fight so close. You would be overwhelmed.”

I ignored the insult and tried to imagine those days long ago. A younger Mama Rattakin, full of verve and courage, sitting outside the Mothgate with her rifle and her revolver, solemnly guarding the world from the Nightfall creatures of the gate. A better shot, she says! Impossible to imagine. I had never seen Mama Rattakin miss a target.

“Can we not just break it, Mama? Could we not fetch the hammer and knock out the stones?”

A wry smile crept across Mama’s lips.

“I tried once, Elsa. The gate is tougher than it looks. These stones do not break.”

I stared at the Mothgate in silence. Mama continued to smoke her pipe.

“You will learn, Elsa. The gate is what it is. We cannot move it. We cannot break it. All we can do is stop the things that live beyond it from entering our world. That is what we do. That is what we always will do.”

She raised her withered hand to the gate, pointed it like a gun, and pretended to shoot.


Back at the cabin, Mama lit the hearth and kicked her shoes to the corner. I brewed a kettle of barley tea and served it in cracked pewter mugs. We sat in silence for a time, sipping our herb-infused drinks. Mama’s eyes were closed and her chest rattled as she breathed.

“How long since the last true Nightfall, Mama?” I asked.

“Oh, many years. Long before I was born. I’ve only read about it in the book. It was long before we found the gate and began our stewardship. Would you fetch it for me, dear?”

I placed my tea to the side and went to Mama’s study. It was a catastrophe of paper in there, each piece covered in arcane scribblings and counter scribblings. The lore book was open on her desk, on the page concerning witika. Mama must have been amending the entry.

A diagram of a witika’s face filled the middle of the page, annotated with crude sketchings. There they were, the teeth I had seen last night. Thin and long and sharp as scorpions’ tails. I shuddered as I imagined them sinking into my skin. I had not seen the eyes, black as pitch, that stared out of the picture at me.

Some years earlier I had asked Mama how old the book was, but she had simply laughed and rolled her eyes. The pages were yellowing and cracked, the spine bent. Entries on different monsters of the gate had been entered, amended, crossed out in their entirety, then added in once more with new names and new impressions. Mama’s own script was arcane, but fresh. As a young girl I had tried to find the oldest and faintest hand I could, hoping to find some forgotten lore I could impress Mama with. This never worked. Mama seemed to know everything about the land of Nightfall, and studied the book daily.

I closed it with care, picked it up with both hands, and brought it to her. It took up Mama’s entire lap.

“The witika?”

“Yes. There were more than I expected last night. The dance felt different, too. New patterns.”

I nodded.

“Do you think it means something?”

“It all means something, Elsa. Every change, every new motion, every new expression or song. We have to watch out for these things. It is only through understanding that we can stop them,” she sighed. “So, Elsa. Are you ready for your exam?”

“Mama, no! I’m tired.”

Mama clicked her tongue. “We’re all tired. I suppose you’ll say that when a fossegrimmen leaps at you from the fog, cudgel raised? Or a witika catches you in its cold palms and shears your neck with its fangs?”

I sat back down. Mama had her rituals.

The questions went on long into the night.


19th September, again

“I don’t understand, Mama,” I cried out in anguish. “Why must you leave?”

moth-pull2“This is always the way, dear. You have done well over these past years. You have become quite the guardian. As long as you keep your calm and your sense, you can hold the gate alone now, as has always been intended. Whether it’s tallemajas or pollogrubs, or any other devil of Nightfall, you know how to stop them.”

“But why can’t you stay with me?” I wailed. “Why go through at all? It’s never worked before!”

Mama laid a hand on my shoulder and tried to soothe me with nonsense words of heroism.

“This is what we all do, Elsa. When it’s time to pass the guard on, we have to try to end things. My Mama marched through the gate, as did her Mama before her. This cannot continue forever, my dear. One of us must find a way to close the gate, and when we do, nobody else will be left with…” She waved her hand around the barren cabin. There was no need for words.

“But you’ll die, Mama.”

“Maybe I’ll set you free from this burden. We can but hope. Things might be different this time.”

I wiped a tear from my eye. It wasn’t fair. Mama was right, as always, but I didn’t want to see her leave. She had been there for me since I was a cub. She never spoke much about my youth, just that I had been left on her doorstep and she raised me as her own. I loved her for this.

The walk to the Mothgate was too short. Mama limped ahead of me, using her rifle as a walking stick. I tried to find the words. Something, anything, to express my gratitude and love for her. It all turned to ash in my mouth. None of the words I could find were suitable. Tears continued to solemnly march down my cheeks.

As we walked down the gloomy trail and towards the Mothgate, I wondered how long she might live once she crossed the threshold and entered the Nightlands. Poor Mama Rattakin. She was quick and deadly, but there was no knowing what she would find when she entered the Mothgate. The book only contained so much, after all.

We stopped at the old moss wall and prepared as normal. I had stopped shivering, having learnt to focus through the cold and through the fear. I was as steady as hard stone, no matter what my heart felt.

“Once tonight’s guard is finished, I shall leave you,” Mama said. “Trust me, Elsa. You are ready. And do not cry for me. This is what I was meant to do. I don’t have a choice. Do not follow. If I fail, and the gate remains, you too will one day have to make this journey. You’ll know when the time is right.” She wiped a tear away from my cheek.

The book said we would see nokken this night, and we did. They came as expected, beautiful white horses stampeding towards us, backed by the thrill of violins played by unseen hands. I was expert now and between us the chatter of our rifles soon stilled the hoofbeats of those devilish shapechangers. I saw only one change; a nokken that reared up in front of Mama, scorpion tail erupting from its back as its front legs melted and thickened into chitinous plates. Mama’s rifle laid it to rest with a bullet to the heart. She never even blinked.

Mama Rattakin had raised me to fight the creatures of Nightfall, teaching me their weaknesses and strengths. I learnt to separate beauty from good. Not all things that come through the Mothgate are as delightful to look upon as the nokken or witika, but they are all equally dark and cannot be allowed to enter our world. She had shown me the stories in the book of the old times, where the creatures of Nightfall had come into our world and feasted upon our kind. Faeries and nymphs, beautiful as silk and silver, dripping with crimson. Beauty could not be trusted. Mama Rattakin was all scars, aged from stress, but her heart was pure as mountain snow.

We waited, rifles primed, but nothing more appeared before us. The nokken had been stopped.

“It’s time.” Mama pulled herself up and limped through the trees, stepping over the chalk dusted grass and on towards the gate. She almost seemed keen. I followed behind.

This was the first time I had seen the Mothgate at night. Through that same stone arch lay an unfamiliar place. It was a forest, still, but not the same forest in which we stood. I’m not sure how I could tell, but it was clear. Something in the color of the trees, perhaps.

Mama turned to me, her eyes sparkling.

“Elsa, you have kept me young. Thank you for your help all these years. You shall be a wonderful guardian.” She drew me close and caught me in a bear hug. “I’ll see you again, I’m sure.”

“Do you promise?”

Mama did not answer this. She simply smiled, as was her way.

With that, she stepped through the Mothgate and into the unknown land beyond. She looked from side to side, scanning the trees around her, before settling on a path and disappearing out of sight. I stared into the empty air where she should have been, and shivered.

It was with a heavy heart I turned and headed toward our cabin. Now my cabin.

I felt like an empty shell.


19th September, once more

Four years since Mama Rattakin left me, and the gate still opened most nights. Each night I sat and waited with my rifle primed.

It was summer now and I was lying against the rock opposite the Mothgate. Mama had said to stay at the moss wall but I preferred it here, where I could watch the gate and pick off the monsters as they crossed into our world. She had said I was not skilled enough. I came here to prove a point to myself.

It had been trolldes tonight. Great and hairy and fat, they could only fit through the gate one at a time. True enough, it took more than one bullet to bring them down, but it had been a simple task. Over the years I had turned shooting into a craft. I am better at this than Mama was, I am sure.

Under the moon I sat, watching the gate, making certain that no other creature would cross through, when I saw it. I saw her.

Mama Rattakin.

It was only for a moment, but there was no mistaking that limp. She hobbled past the gate and out of view once more.

My jaw dropped.

“Mama! Mama Rattakin!” I called out, approaching the gate. Could it truly be? After all these years, that she still hunted in the Nightlands and searched for a way to break the gate?

I crept forward. What could I do? Mama had always warned me about the danger of the gate, but my mentor and teacher, the woman who raised me, was so close. What if I could bring her back? After all these years, surely she could abandon her quest and rejoin me? She could rest while I took stewardship.

My mind was fastened. I primed my rifle and stepped through the Mothgate and into the new forest. My heart raced and my stomach leapt towards my throat. Old Mama Rattakin was alive. How I had longed to hear her voice, to feel her calming hand on my shoulder just once more. Now it was possible.

The Nightfall forest. Twin moons loomed large in the sky above. It was a busy place, alive with the unfamiliar chattering of unfamiliar creatures.

It was colder, too. Much colder.

I held my rifle steady and slipped through the trees, heading in the direction Mama Rattakin had gone. My nerves were on fire, every sense heightened. I had slain thousands of unwholesome beasts from this land, but now they could be anywhere around me. This was no shooting gallery. Every snap of a twig or rustling bush set my nerves alight once more.

Stepping through the trees and up a steady slope, I heard the distant song of the witikas. Creeping over the brow of the hill, I discovered it was the lip of a basin. Pine trees grew sparsely and a deep lake glistened at the bottom.

There were witikas by the water, dancing their mad ballet, heads dipping and rising in time with one another. Peering through the sight of my rifle, I saw many more creatures I knew around the lake; fossegrimmen working their fiddles, huldras bathing in the water and basking in the moonlight. I stepped back, taking care to not make a sound. Mama Rattakin would never have been foolish enough to venture into the basin, of that I was certain.

I turned to head back out of the basin and continue my search for Mama, and froze. Before me stood a great bear, a karhu. Saliva dripped from its fangs and it stared at me hungrily with beady pink eyes. These beasts had rarely come through the Mothgate, but I knew how dangerous they could be. A rattling growl came from deep within its throat.

I raised my rifle, aiming for its head. It lunged forward as I fired, and time slowed.

First came the crack of my rifle. My aim was true and a gout of white burst from the karhu’s head as the bullet entered its skull and struck the beast dead. Second came the crack of my leg as the great bulk of the karhu fell upon me. It sent a lightning bolt of agony through my leg and up my spine as I collapsed to the ground. I howled in pain.

The monstrous corpse had rolled sideways after landing on me, tumbling down the slope before settling in thick bracken. Waves of pain pulsed through my leg and back.

I lay on the ground, tears pouring from my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I stood and put what weight I could on my leg, nearly collapsing back to the ground as it buckled under me. How could I search for Mama Rattakin now? Using my rifle to support me, I hobbled down the hill as best I could. As I moved, I could hear beautiful and harmonic song growing closer.

The witika were coming.

I hobbled down the hill as fast as I was able, whimpering to myself as I tried to remember my way back to the gate. Any thought of finding Mama had evaporated. All I could think of now was survival, and that meant finding my way home.


I froze.

At the bottom of the hill stood Mama Rattakin, revolver in her good hand. She was covered in mud and white powder, her clothes ripped. Somehow, miraculously, she didn’t seem surprised to see me. Nothing rattled Mama.

“Mama Rattakin!” I sobbed, hopping toward her as best I could. She looked down at my injured leg, looked to her own, and smiled.

“What a pair,” she said, shaking her head.

Oh, Mama. Only she could keep so calm in such difficulty.

“You’re alive, Mama! I’d always hoped, but when you never came home I didn’t know what to think.”

She nodded. “You were foolish to come through, Elsa. But what’s done is done. I’m glad to see you.” Mama started to limp away at a pace I could not hope to meet.

“Mama, wait. I cannot keep up.”

“You must.”

I stumbled after her through the undergrowth, fending off branches and thickets with numb hands, tears of pain streaming down my cheeks.

“Mama, I’m so glad to see you. But, I don’t understand. How have you eaten? How have you survived?”

“I’ve only been gone for a few days, Elsa.” Mama looked me up and down. “For me, anyway. Time is a broken thing in Nightfall. It does not run like the river, as in our world, but it thrashes and whips like a hurricane. Days are weeks and months are seconds.” She shrugged as she walked. At no point did she stop and wait for me, though she had slowed her pace. “But you must listen, Elsa. This is very important. I am taking you back to the Mothgate now and you must, no matter what happens, go through. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mama. You’re coming too, right?” My heart sank even before she answered.

“I can’t return, Elsa. My time in that world is over.”

And with that, Mama Rattakin upped her pace.

Only when the peak of the Mothgate loomed did Mama Rattakin stop. Breathing heavily and drinking in the cold air, I tried to compose myself. Mama was always so assured. It was as if ice ran through her. We had put distance between us and the witika now, who must have gone cavorting and gamboling in the wrong direction. It was quiet. Just the murmur of wind that crept through the trees and the rustle of wet leaves as I dragged my shattered leg behind. The sounds of moonlit animals hunting.

I heard a whimper.

Was it Mama?

She was shivering. It was now that I realized the rich scent of winter mulch and bracken in the air was not alone, and had been joined by smoke and charcoal.

An oddly warm breeze cut through the crisp night chill and quickly rose in temperature. Over Mama’s shoulder, floating through the trees, hanging limply in the air, was a man. Dressed in waterfalls of red cloth, chin resting against his chest and a wide brimmed hat upon his head, he drifted towards us. Blackened feet brushing through grass that died as he passed, he stopped and slowly raised his arms. Fingers of coal stretched out, spilling ash that floated on the breeze. Broken fingernails and scoured knuckles. The daemon lifted its head and revealed its face; a cracked skull with a quivering jaw that ground its teeth without pause.

I recognized this thing from Mama’s ancient book of monsters. This was one of the few creatures that I had never seen come through the gate. One of the most dangerous things that lived in the Nightlands, a brasskarl. A corpse risen by a pyromantic curse with a desire to incinerate all living things.

It stood between us and the Mothgate.

“Through the gate, Elsa.” Mama’s voice quivered. I realized with a jolt that, for the first time, she was afraid.

“But, Mama…” My voice trailed off and her eyes dulled.

“You must go home, Elsa. Do not try to help. You must get home to guard the gate and maintain the book.” Her voice cracked. She hugged me, before turning back to the monster before us.

The brasskarl floated, flames licking the air around it. It ground its teeth so hard that shards of bone started to break away.

Mama stepped towards it, raising her revolver. She fired three times, the bullets tearing into the burning monster, gouts of steam bursting from its wounds. It moved towards her, slowly, arms extended.

I shuffled sideways, dragging my hurt leg, making a curved path around Mama and the brasskarl. The gate wasn’t far. Mama fired another three times and this did not still the brasskarl. It had reached Mama and grabbed her with brimstone hands. Flames shot down its arms to engulf Mama Rattakin in fire. She screamed, much as I had screamed earlier, and thrashed in its grasp, kicking and punching with all her strength.

I could not help myself, despite Mama’s plea. I threw myself towards them and tried to drag Mama away. Yet the moment I touched her, those cursed flames lit up my hand. My skin began to blister and I let go, swearing and swinging my hand wildly in the air. The brasskarl was focused entirely on Mama, shaking her violently as she immolated. Her struggles waned.

I thought I would be sick, but the weight inside me was too heavy. Trying to ignore the end of my Mama, I hobbled through the black stone Mothgate and collapsed in a heap. I lay in the mud, staring up at the dawn sky, and waited for the monsters to follow.

They did not. Mama had been enough.

I peered through the gate, but Mama and the brasskarl were out of sight. As I stared, the forest shimmered and morphed. Soon enough, it was our own forest once more. I had returned through the Mothgate just in time. The image of Mama burning was still fierce in my mind.

Inspecting my hand, I saw it was ruined. Blistered and raw, I was sure it would never be of use again.

The sun rose and the night died away, and with great effort, I made my way back to the cabin, limping up the grassy path. Opening the old wooden door, I hauled my exhausted body inside and collapsed into Mama’s armchair. This comforted me, however slightly.

Closing my eyes, I soon fell into slumber, but sometime later a knock at the door roused me.

Dragging myself to my feet, I cautiously hobbled to the door and answered.

On the step of the cabin, wrapped in rags, lay a newborn babe. She slept quietly, her chest rising and falling. Dreaming of her mother, perhaps? I stared down the path and all around, but nobody was there. Bending down, I scooped up the child, taking the weight in my good hand, and took her inside.

moth-pull3I returned to the armchair, cuddling the well-swaddled babe close. She had a birthmark on her hand, a crescent moon stretching from the base of her thumb across the back of her hand. Just like my own.

I lifted my scorched hand to try to make it out, but the blisters had completely masked it. Carefully placing the babe down on the wooden table, I cleaned my hand and dressed it, wrapping it tightly in bandages. I needed to see a doctor, but there were none for miles around and I had no hope of reaching one, not on my own. I strapped it and splinted it, just as Mama had taught me.

I froze as I pulled the splint tight. A foolish thought crossed my mind.

The lore book was sat on Mama’s desk. I placed a palm on an open page and closed my eyes, thinking of Mama. Skimming through, I found the page concerning the brasskarl. There were not so many entries on this monster as the rest, though they were still numerous. Some faded, some new, some almost worn away completely. Upon the diagram of the creature were drawn dozens of X’s, on elbow, hip, and heart. With Mama’s pencil, I marked the six points where I had seen her shoot the brasskarl. There was a pattern. Chewing the end of the pencil, I studied the notes with care. It was methodical, like a surgeon probing.

The baby stirred. Hobbling to the table, I picked her up in my arms and cuddled her close. Exhausted as I was, it was only now I noticed the envelope tucked into her swaddling. I removed it clumsily with my good hand and tore it open.

The girl opened her mouth and I readied myself for her bawling.

“Mama,” she cooed happily.

I opened the envelope, my heartbeat racing.

‘I am sorry to ask this of you, kind stranger, but please look after our darling Elsa,’ it read. ‘She is our pride and joy. With your love and care, I am sure she will be a special person one day.”

I slumped into Mama’s chair. I looked at the calendar. It was the 19th of September. My birthday.


19th September, 19 years on

We approached the tree line and set up camp by the moss coated wall. Elsa’s hands shook as she unpacked her bag. She glanced to the tree line over and over again, though she tried her best to hide it. It was a big day for her. All those years of practice, leading to this.

I knew she would do well. I was stronger than my own Mama, and my own dear Elsa would be stronger than me. One day, perhaps, one of us would find a way to close the gate. The brasskarl was the key.

I had often thought about telling her the truth, yet it was too heavy a burden for such a young mind. I am not sure I would have lasted the years of long and lonely nights if I had known. Not at her age. What if she had left the gate, or made a decision that changed my past, her future? Nightfall might have overtaken the world with blood and beauty. No. She would understand, just as I had.

It is different for me, as Mama. Having Elsa had given me purpose. She needed my protection. She needed a guide. How else would she have grown strong enough to guard the gate? How could she grow to become… me?

Telling her the truth was too great a gamble.

“This is your most important lesson.”

I handed her the rifle. Long and cold, ornately decorated. Passing it on was harder than I’d expected. Seeing her struggle with the weight, I took the barrel and laid it on the low wall before to us. I knew that would help.

“Watch and wait. No mistakes, Elsa. I know what is coming,” I said, staring off into the trees.





James Ross Troughton is a writer of speculative fiction who lives and works in Essex, England. After graduating from the University of Leicester in 2007, he moved to Seoul, South Korea, where he worked in language academies for three years before returning to the UK. He now works in Primary education. He likes cats.



Shimmer #25

We Take the Long View, by Erica L. Satifka

The snow crunches under our boots as us-in-Devora and us-in-Mel trace our way through the Forest-That-Thinks. We pause, waiting for directions.

That way.

Sunlight pierces through the low-slung clouds. The Forest speaks again and there’s a picture in our minds of the Very-Big-Wrong and the image of a landing site appears in our head. We have not thought of landing sites for a very long time.

What do you think it is? Us-in-Mel asks, mind-to-mind.

Us-in-Devora shakes her head and shrugs. I do not know.

Is it food? Us-in-Mel scoops a pile of dead Leaves from the ground on which we stand and crams them into our mouth. That part of us is always hungry.

I. Don’t. Know.

Faster! screams the Forest, and we snap to attention.

As we sprint to the landing site, Us-in-Mel makes careful blazes in the Forest’s thick trunks. It wouldn’t do to wander off—not when there’s a Very-Big-Wrong somewhere, loose and so close.

Us-in-Devora is the first of us to stumble into the clearing to the landing site covered with a fine layer of snow. She-that-is-us paces around it, careful not to step on the pieces of us that were broken off at the Wrong. Our nose wrinkles.

Smelly, she says, her mind-speak betraying her disgust.

It’s… Mel grasps for a word, but can’t come up with a better one. Smelly. Yes.

We pick up a stick, a stray dead part of us, and poke the thing in the clearing. It stirs.

26 January 2564

Today we enter the outer fringe of the Horsehead Nebula, a dismal little planet called Fleming-7, where two standard years ago we lost communication with sixty-five Terran colonists. A recovery team has been rallied to recover what we can from the ill-fated mission, laying to rest the suspicions and fears of their families.

I know I shouldn’t question the motivations of Central Control, but this is a fool’s errand. It’s a waste of time to hunt about for dead bodies on some lousy backwater. With any luck we’ll find what we’re looking for quickly, and I will be home soon to my precious Bianca, waiting for me in stasis, unwilling to lose our life together to such a distant journey.

At least I’ll get overtime, if we’re lucky.

End transmission,

We poke at the not-us on the ground for a good long time, until it turns over, coughs, and sits up, rubbing its face with its hands. It blinks, looking at us as we look at it.

“You’re alive?” It reaches for something at its waist, then reels back its hand.

“Of course we’re alive,” us-in-Mel says in the mouth-voice, Leaves falling from our lips. “Are you alive?”

“Am I alive?” The not-us scoots back.

“That’s what we asked,” says Devora. “You don’t have to answer now if you don’t know.”

The not-us stands and scrambles back to the site of the Wrong. It pulls out a little black box and pushes a button on the side. “I’m going to have to call this in. Just…stay there. Stay right there.”

Silly it-thing! we think. Where else would we go, if not the Wrong? Because it is wrong, and because it lies at the heart of the Forest-That-Thinks, we can’t exactly leave it alone.

While we wait for the not-us to finish with its black box, we play one of our favorite games. Devora ducks behind one of the huge trunks, while the us-who-is-Mel scampers behind another.

Marco, Devora thinks.

Polo, Mel thinks.

And we think as one, and because of this, we are happy.


8 February 2564

Unexpected complications have arisen. Several of the doomed colonists are alive, though badly traumatized from their experiences. Spectral analysis performed remotely aboard the ship has determined the overabundance of unusual compounds in the heartwood of the trees.

Aside from the trees and the colonists, there is no other life.

The survivors of the crash will be briefed, decontaminated, and brought aboard the ship. The properties of the planet must be investigated as well, for their usefulness and potential profit to Central Control.

I do wonder if there’s a way to spin this to my advantage. The euphoric, almost childlike state of the colonists leads me to believe that the alien compounds might fetch a good price on Terra. We’ll run tests, of course. Still, how fortunate it would be to return a rich man. That would almost make these months of isolation worth it, both for me and for Bianca.

End transmission,

We are in turmoil.

The Very-Big-Wrong, the it-thing from the landing site, has invaded the settlement, the place where the we-that-are-mobile gather to speak, to screw, and to eat of Leaves and body-food. We begged and pleaded at it and asked the Forest-That-Thinks to give us permission to use force to repel the intruder.

No, said the Forest.

But why? asked us-in-Devora.

He is of use. And then the Forest-That-Thinks did the cruelest thing it can ever do, shutting us off from it, so that Devora and Mel could only speak mind-to-mind in whispers, and they couldn’t hear the others of us very much at all.

Sometimes, we do not like the Forest-That-Thinks.

The intruder strode into the settlement with great bounce in its step. It is no longer afraid of us. And because we don’t want to be forever shut off from the Forest-That-Thinks by fighting back, it has no reason to be afraid of us.

We are powerless.

It has been here for seventeen cycles of the light that shines behind the cloud cover: seventeen dusks, sixteen darks. Refusing to eat either our food or the sap of the forest, it lacks Understanding. It will not speak with us except through the mouth, and only a few of us retain that primitive method of communication. Those who do are resentful at having to translate everything for the Wrong.

It is Wrong, after all! We are Right! Why has the Forest-That-Thinks forsaken us?

Forest has reasons, us-in-Devora says. Her real voice is barely a whisper compared to the ugly mouth-voice.

You trust too easily, us-in-Mel replies.

Maybe, she says, eyeing the intruder. It is breaking off one of our Branches, and our heart catches at the pain. Maybe not.

15 February 2564

Through observation and conversation with the other members of the crew, I’ve determined that the compounds secreted by the sap of the native trees seem to induce a weak telepathic ability in the stranded colonists. It’s a little scary to know how easily they can talk behind my back. If they weren’t so subservient, I might start to get paranoid.

Physically, the colonists are weak as kittens. The sap that opens their minds to one another betrays the body, and as a result the colonists are completely spotted with tumors of all sizes, making them look a bit like bags of rocks with faces. It brings to mind the terminal form of that ancient disease, cancer.

The other day, I caught a colonist eating his own tumors, using his thick fingernails to slice open the epidermis and ferret the tumor from his body. Then he popped it in his mouth like a cherry. I shuddered when I saw that. Must investigate further.

The crew sends cans of food down the elevator, but they won’t come down themselves, the big babies. Certainly, my bravery will earn me special mention from Central Control when we get back to Terra.

I hope so, anyway.

End transmission,

The intruder wears a mask around its mouth now and swathes its body in linens dropped from the ship in the sky. It doesn’t fear us, but it fears the Understanding.

To be fair, a few days ago, some of the us-that-are-mobile did try to put the sap in its mouth. And it did roar mightily about that with its mouth-voice, and it did hit several of us. The one-that-was-Mel died.

And yet, the Forest-That-Thinks remains silent. Help us, you who are also us!

But we will not stray, we will not allow the individual desires and hungers that once ruled us like iron fists to dictate our actions now. To do so would remove us from the grace of our Forest.

That would be suicide.

The intruder set up its camp at the edge of our settlement. There it stays, crouching, waiting. For what, we do not know. It speaks into its little black box with its horrible mouth-voice. It eats from silver cans. Its bright orange inflatable hut is like its ugly mind, a shield that hides it from the Community. When it questions us, which is often, it forces us to speak with our mouth voices, because it cannot yet speak the true language.

It laughs at us. It thinks we-who-are-mobile have forgotten the way we used to be. “I could fix you. Cut out those tumors, synthesize an agent to work against the tree sap.”

“No,” one of us says. “Not that.”

It lowers its eyes. “I could make you.”

We flinch when it says that. We have seen the power in the intruder, the way it cast us-in-Mel aside. We don’t want to be cast aside to die. Even though we are but instances of the Community, each of us still clings stubbornly to our own facet of life.

“Please don’t,” we say. “Please.”

It just laughs some more, that hideous noise smearing the perfect silence of our world.

Us-in-Devora travels often to see the intruder. She watches it from the bushes near its camp, and through her eyes, we see it too. At first we could see it brightly, as if with our very own eyes. Now, we can barely see it at all. We-who-are-mobile are very worried about us-in-Devora.

28 February 2564

The crew grows impatient. Ever since I came down they’ve been requesting a departure timetable. I know my faithless crew is reading these entries, so here’s your timetable: we’ll go when I say we go.


I have studied the sap of what they call the “forest that thinks” more in depth, and have determined that it is indeed highly carcinogenic. Why these people are alive, I have no idea. Nor do I know what triggers the telepathic sense. In all my weeks here, I haven’t felt a trace of the “mind voice.” Surely it must be controlled by the sap, or the tumors the sap generates.

Sometimes I wish I could taste it.I have made contact with a local. Research into the ship’s manifest reveals her to be one Devora Mikelski, a first-year xenobiology student undoubtedly chosen more for her looks than her grades. She displays no real curiosity about the properties of the forest that surrounds most of this snow-covered world. Like a little puppy, she follows me when I go out to study the trees, though she looks away when I take core samples from the thick, fibrous trunks. She allows me to palpate her many tumorous growths and take photographs. (See attached.) When I am around her, I wear a form-fitting mask, in case she tries to slip a bit of sap into my mouth or nostrils. She hasn’t tried recently. She obeys me utterly.

It’s quiet here, so very quiet. Sometimes, just to break the silence, I sing Bianca’s favorite songs at the top of my lungs, those awful jazz-rock hits she liked to listen to on the infobursts. The colonists cower, like I’m hurting them. But I’m not hurting them, right?

So what if I am? I’m lonely.

Transmission over,

Devora washes the intruder’s spare masks and linens. We arrange its tins of food. We sweep the small inflatable dwelling with a soft-bristled brush, and try not to shudder when the intruder strokes our mounds of body-food and calls us “beautiful, in your own way.”

We grit our teeth. We remind ourselves that eventually, it will see the truth. We take the long view.

“It hurts,” us-in-Devora says through her mouth. The resentment we feel when we look at the intruder is as vast as the silver belly of its ship.

The intruder looks up from its mutilation of a branch plucked from the Forest, a piece still alive when it was severed. “What hurts, honey?”

We shake our head, thinking of us-in-Mel, the instance of the Community that Devora had cared for most. Our head glistening with blood and sap, our limbs shattered. “Nothing.”

Devora looks no more at the silent Forest-That-Thinks. We close our minds to the rest of us. We practice the unfamiliar pronoun which the intruder forces us to say.

“She,” says the intruder, jabbing at Devora’s body-food with a scalpel. “She. She.”

And it is a he, and to the intruder this means something profound.

She-is-Devora doesn’t bother listening to the rest of us anymore. Our voices are too faint to hear. She takes the medication the intruder provides and lets it rip the voice-giving structures right out of her body. She gazes into the mirrored pool outside the intruder’s inflatable hut, and retches.

It’s time. “When can we leave for Terra?” she asks, affecting her best traumatized-survivor impersonation.

The Wrong, it grins.

4 March 2565

Departure is nigh. I have only one week to pack my meager belongings and finish up my anthropological notes. Unfortunately, it would take several lifetimes to give justice to all I’ve experienced here.

Only one of the doomed colonists will accompany me back to Terra: Devora Milkelski, my little assistant. She has allowed me to remove the tumors from her body, though she cried when I did it. I tried to comfort her, but it didn’t help.

I’ve taken my last samples of sap and of bark, and while the colonists certainly did complain about it, I only had to sing one of Bianca’s songs to make them flee in terror at the shattering of their silence. How fast they fall, how weak they are in this environment. Even if they wanted to return to Terra, I’m not sure they could withstand the gravity or rapid pace of life. Only Devora seems excited to see her home planet after so many years away.

I asked her how much she remembered.

“Not very much,” she responded, running her hands over her fixed body. “The forest took so much from us, but you have restored it.”

Isn’t that wonderful? I’m her hero. And heroes deserve a reward, and I have been away from Bianca for a long, long time.

End transmission,


She-is-Devora watches us through a wall of frosted glass, one only she can tell is there. We send our thoughts and emotions to her, but they patter against the glass like the flying creatures we vaguely remember from Terra.

Goodbye, says us-in-Malik.

Farewell, says us-in-Qin.

The voices are so far-away, like transmissions through a shattered ansible, the Community must open their mouths and speak the words to she-is-Devora through our little-used larynxes. The voices come out ugly, nails on rusted steel. At the edge of the camp, the Wrong’s face crumples.

She-is-Devora responds in tears.

She packs her rucksack from the corner one of the inflatable pods the members of the Community abandoned when they landed, before they were the Community, before they had known such love. In the depths, she places a package wrapped in a layer of Leaves, and covers it with the clothing the intruder insists she wear.

Boots crunching through the snow, she returns to the invader, to the it-him. Her nutrient-stripped body is swathed in his castoff linens. Her hand encloses a sachet of sap.

“Take me back.”

We watch behind the wall only she-is-Devora can see, and we mourn. The loss of any of us is a loss beyond measuring. However bad it is for us, it is worse for Devora. Locked away from Understanding, one is but a shadow, a Branch broken from its Trunk.

Devora slips the sachet of sap between her teeth. As the elevator starts to rise, the intruder sweeps her up into his arms, tongue reaching down into the very depth of her-the-former-us.

Devora doesn’t say no.

The intruder’s eyes widen as we welcome a new member into the Community. When he falls from the elevator we are there to receive him. Receive us.

Our Bianca,

We must report that our return to Terra is permanently cancelled. We have found a place that surpasses even the pleasures of Terra, which disappears in our estimation as a shooting star disappears over the farthest horizon.

The body in which this instance of we resides can no longer stand, no longer walk to commune with the Forest-That-Thinks. It is no matter. We carry us wherever we wish to go. We carry us to the river, we carry us to the lake of snow and to the clearing where we can see the Very-Big-Wrong, the “landing site” that was once so important to us, but is no longer.

Sometimes, when us-in-me lies in this frozen body, as gobbets of body-food are pushed into our mouth by the other pieces of us, we think of you similarly frozen in your stasis chamber, and wish that you could experience all that we do. How dreadful it is to be alone! How unnatural!

Us-in-Me have no way of sending this transmission, it is but a thought projected into the minds of all who share the Understanding. We hope you-who-are-not-us are happy, wherever you are. And now we will think no more of you, for such things are irrelevant.

We remain,

She-is-Devora is painfully alone, in a way she hasn’t been since arriving on the planet the crew calls Fleming-7, but that she only knows as home.

Two of the crew members say she-is-Devora pushed the one named Gabriel from the elevator, while three say it was an accident. But after she puts a little sap in their first-cycle coffee, it doesn’t matter. In the greenhouse, she buries the fist-sized Seeds she hid in her rucksack for future transplant.

It takes longer for the tendrils of the crew’s minds to reach outwards and entangle with one another and with hers. It takes weeks for them to become us. With so few people, it’s not the intense Understanding of the world swiftly slipping away through layers of black space, but it’s a start.

She-us is no longer alone.

“How many people live on Terra now?” Devora asks them-us.

“Much the same as when you left,” they reply. “Seventeen billion.” Devora’s heart soars to think of so many people joined in the mind-voice. She knows they feel the same.

When the first body-food is ripe, she-us shows them-us how to harvest it.

It will take years for Terra to become a true Community, all members knit together in harmony. Without the Forest-That-Thinks to boost the mind-voice, it will take even longer. But we will wait for the Understanding to take root, for all to think as one. It is a thing worth waiting for.

After all, we take the long view.


Erica L. Satifka’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Ideomancer, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Rob and too many cats. Visit her online at www.ericasatifka.com.

Erica Satifka
Erica Satifka


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