Tag Archives: ghosts

Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light, by Malon Edwards

You keep running even though you know you can’t escape the fifty-foot-tall Pogo. But you were built for this.

You are taller than all of the girls and most of the boys in your Covey Four class. Your legs are longer. Your steam-clock heart is stronger. Your determination is unmatched. Even against the rocks they throw. Even against the insults they hurl. Even when they entimide you and chase you home after school every day, all because your mother could not save their friends.

They have not caught you yet. And they never will. Because you will not let them.

But you are trying to do the impossible here. You are trying to outrun the Pogo, a kakadyab, an ugly, hideous entity no timoun has ever escaped. Not even your best friend, Bobby Brightsmith. And he knew the chant to send it slinking back into Lake Michigan.

Yet, you are confident. You have just rescued Bobby. You hacked his writhing, tentacled body off the Pogo’s scaly, diamond-shaped face with your machete, Tonton Macoute. You wrapped Bobby’s slimy, bloody snake-form around your torso. And then, you ran like you have never run before.

Kounye a la, your lungs burn, your legs are wobbly, and your steam-clock heart is going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in your chest. It has never beat this hard. It has never beat this fast. You can feel the overdrive of its tiny springs. You can feel the rotating thump of its miniscule cam.

You are worried.

You have one more block to run before you make it home. You’re almost there. When you arrive, you can ask Manmi to look at your heart. After all, she did design and build it.

But when you round the bend leading to your street, you see, through the gloaming of the half dark, a shadowed figure standing in front of your house. You stop. Or you try. But you can’t. Not at first. You have underestimated your own determination.

Your momentum continues to propel you forward. Only a meter or two. Your arms flail. Your legs give way. You skid across the hard, uneven cobblestones.

Your hands and knees press against the cold ground, bruised and skinned by your fall. It is in this position you heave—sèl fwa, de fwa, twa fwa—before you retch sticky, ropy bile that turns invisible in the weak light of the gas lamps when it hits the dark cobblestones. The gas lamps have never been this dim before. Not on your street. Not on Oglesby.

Your mother and father made sure of that when you moved to La Petite de Haïti in Chicago from La Petite de Haïti in Miami. They do not mind giving a few more pièces de monnaie to the Lamplighters Guild. They want you, Michaëlle-Isabelle, their ti fi cheri, to feel safe, especially on your walk home from school within the heavy shroud of the half dark. They want their patients to feel welcome when they visit, pandan jounen an, during the day, and a leswa, at night.

But this is not welcoming.

It is not safe.

It is not comforting.

And this is all because of the man standing in the middle of the street in front of your house.

You are certain the shadowed figure is a man. A woman would not participate in this awful game. A woman would not play jwe lago—hide-and-seek—in the darkness between the downcast lights of the gas lamps, clothed in shadows, hoping you find her. She would not even consider the notion, knowing an eleven-year-old girl would be walking home by herself in the half dark.

An plis, you have never seen a woman radiate such malevolence. It is apparent in the way this Shadow Man holds himself. It is apparent in the way he stands, hunched and menacing. You are quite certain you will never, in your lifetime, see a woman adopt this evil, wicked stance.

The Shadow Man is, as your mother would say, pa bon ki nan kò l. He ain’t no good.

Epitou, as if to confirm this, you hear the Shadow Man say, “Ah, ti chouchou, I thought you’d never come home from school.”

And he says this in your father’s voice.

You are a smart girl. You should not be surprised your father is the Shadow Man. Not if you had been nosy when you were living in La Petite de Haïti Miami. Not if you had been paying close attention. Not when it was just you and him.

You look confused. Allow me to remind you.

Your mother was called to La Petite de Haïti Chicago by the old and wizened Lord Mayor himself, John Baptiste Point du Sable. He enticed her with anpil lajan (more money than you or she had ever seen) and the title Surgeon General. He needed her to help him combat the polio outbreak in the city-state.

He wanted her to build steam-clock hearts for the children whose sweet flesh hearts had been withered by the disease. He assured your mother he had people who could implement an assembly line production to churn out the mechanical hearts faster.

He was desperate. Eighty percent of the children in his city under the age of twelve were stricken with polio. Limbs and organs, but especially the heart had no chance. He did not want one more timoun to die.

You were sad to see your mother go, but you are more your father’s ti chouchou than your mother’s ti fi cheri. An plis, you and he would join your mother in Chicago as soon as she stemmed the tide of the polio epidemic there.

Those were fond times for you, despite your mother tending suffering, faceless children one thousand three hundred miles away. Your father laughed a lot. He let you do anything you wanted. He had no rules.

Save two: Go to school every day, and don’t leave your room until daybreak after he tucked you in for bed.

Ah. You remember now. It has been three years past, but you remember. I see it. M ka wè recall in those big, beautiful brown eyes of yours. But you don’t know.

Not yet.

You take three steps forward. You are hesitant. You are tentative. You are wary.

You refuse to believe the Shadow Man is your father.

And yet, your father’s rich, melodic baritone has just slipped across the cobblestones and through the half dark from him over to you. This was the same comforting voice that wished you fè bon rèv—beautiful dreams—after he pulled the covers up to your chin each night in La Petite de Haïti Miami.

You do not think about how he did not do this often for you in Chicago. Soon after you two arrived, he disappeared.

In La Petite de Haïti Miami, you told yourself it was the coziness of your father’s voice that made you stay in bed until the sun painted the horizon with soft strokes of morning warmth and fun, and not the dark shadow that skittered across his face before he turned, left your bedroom, and closed the door behind him. But you cannot lie to yourself in La Petite de Haïti Chicago.

“Do you see what he is holding?”

Bobby’s husky voice startles you. The last time you heard it he was screaming as you cleaved him off the Pogo’s face when the Pogo crouched down to eat you.

You squint into the half dark, but you cannot make out any details. You believe the Shadow Man to be tall, trè wo, but the half dark plays with your eyes and the light from the gas lamps. The half dark is a tricky thing. It is a dangerous thing.

But you already know this.

You realize Bobby’s eyes, as small and black and beady as they are, can see far better than yours in the half dark now that he is one of the Pogo’s face tentacles. Was one of the Pogo’s face tentacles.

“I can’t tell,” you whisper to Bobby, hoping the Shadow Man does not hear you. “What is he holding?”

Bobby slithers around your ribs, across your chest, and up to your neck, leaving a trail of coagulated black blood, but not as much as before. He wraps himself around your throat, like a scarf, and tugs you forward, another step or two. His touch is cold and slimy, but gentle.

Enpi, you see it. The Shadow Man is holding a gunny sack.

Once, and only once, did you leave your room after your father had tucked you in for the night.

You were a bit of an odd child then. The dark did not scare you. But you were more of a curious child. An intrepid child.

When you think back upon that night, time has dulled your memory. You are no longer sure if you truly saw a shadow flit across your father’s face. The thought of it does not bring you unease. Not much unease, manyè, since the more you think about that night the less defined that memory is.

It does not make sense for such a malevolent cast to have been upon your father’s face. That comforting voice you know so well is also playful, always hinting at an oncoming laugh. An infectious laugh. A belly laugh. A laugh you associate with your father more than anything else.

An plis, as you play that night through your mind over and again, for what seems to be the thousandth time, you only remember being eksite. You only remember the flip-flop thrill in your stomach as you disobeyed your father and got out of bed.

The house had been dark. It felt empty. It felt lifeless. You and your father had said so the night your mother left for Chicago. But the night you sneaked out of bed something was different.

You knew where you were going: to your father’s side of the house. You knew the route to his office by heart. It was forbidden to you, one of only two such areas in the house. The other was your mother’s office.

Your parents barred you from their professional space because they thought you might play with the sharp, stainless steel instruments. They were concerned you might open the dark bottles of medicine or uncap the flat tins of unguent, and smell and drink and taste.

You were curious, but you were not foolhardy. Except for this one time.

You made walking through the darkness a game. If you bumped into something, you lost a point. If you stubbed your toe and cried out, you lost five points.

That did not happen, though. You knew that house like you know the lines on your palm—every turn, every corner, every hallway. You arrived at your father’s office with all of your points intact. Your glee did not last long, though.

The gunny sack was in the middle of the floor, knotted tight. Something was in it. It bulged. It moved. It seemed to be stained dark and wet in places.

You could not tell by the sputtering light of the kerosene lamp, but the dark and wet looked like blood. And that’s when you heard it: the whimpering, the crying.

Someone was in the gunny sack.

You gasped. You heard the sloshing of water in next room. In your father’s bathroom. He was in the bathtub. He was washing off the blood. He was the Sack Man. He snuck into houses at night and carried naughty children away. You were sure of it.

You heard sloshing again. Louder, this time. Your father was finished bathing. He was getting out of the bathtub.

His bathwater would be pink. Its warmth would have dissipated. He would be cold. He would want to warm up. He would want to eat. He would want a full belly. He would walk back into his office any moment now. He would eat the child in the gunny sack. And if you were still here when he stepped again into this room, he would eat you, too.

His daughter. His only child. His ti chouchou.

So you turned and ran back to your bedroom. You did not lose your way. You did not make a wrong turn. You did not run into a wall. You did not stub your toe.

You jumped into your bed. You pulled the covers over your head. And you never got out of your bed again after dark.

“I’m not a naughty child, Papa.”

You say this to your father from quite a distance away. You still cannot see his face. You do not want to see his face. It may not be the face you remember.

“Ah, ti chouchou, I know you got out of bed.”

Your father’s voice has its familiar playful tone, as if he’s admonishing you with a smile. You believe, if he is smiling, his teeth are long and sharp and dripping with saliva. Not like the teeth you remember.

“Papa, you cannot eat me. It would not be right.”

You do not want to cry. You refuse to cry. But you have never been so scared in your life. Not when your father went missing after you came to Chicago. Not when you liberated Bobby Brightsmith from the Pogo. Not even when you saw the gunny sack in your father’s office three years ago.

“Come here, ti chouchou. Come closer.”

“Wait.”

Bobby’s whisper is close to your ear. He uncoils from around your neck, glides down your left shoulder, and twines himself around your left arm. His severed end rests in your palm, and his mouth latches onto your bicep. He bites down, hard, with his many small, needle-sharp teeth. You cry out.

“Don’t worry,” Bobby whispers. “If your father eats you, my poison will kill him soon after.”

You do not have much time, so you move forward and halve the distance between you and your father. You can see his face now. It is lean. It is gaunt. He looks as if he has not eaten in days. Weeks. This is not the hale, handsome father you know.

“Pa kriye,” your father says. “Wipe your tears.”

“I’m not crying!”

You have never screamed at your father before. Not in anger. But it is true; you are not crying. Yet, you are close. Your eyes burn with tears. You refuse to let them fall. You do not want to show your father or Bobby or the half dark just how afraid you are right now.

Instead, you reach behind your head, between your shoulder blades, and slide Tonton Macoute from the sheath you sewed into your knapsack. Your father gave you this machete. Your father taught you how to use this machete. And if he tries to eat you, your father will die by this machete.

“Pitit fi, eske ou sonje—”

Your father switches to English. You have always thought he sounded unlike himself in that language.

“My beautiful little daughter, do you remember when I gave you Tonton Macoute?” You nod. “Do you remember what I told you?” You nod again. “‘I give this to you so you will always remember and I will never forget.’ Do you know why I said that?”

He does not wait for you to answer. Your father bares his teeth, and in two quick strides he is standing over you. He is as tall as the street lamps. His empty gunny sack is slung over his shoulder. His teeth are as long and sharp as you imagined.

“Well, it’s time for you to remember, pitit fi, because now I am the Sack Man, and I have forgotten my daughter.”

The Sack Man lunges at you, his hands wide, holding the gunny sack open to swallow you whole with it. But your father taught you well. You are faster. You unleash three swift Rising Butterfly strikes with Tonton Macoute and rend the gunny sack to shreds.

The Sack Man is surprised by your ferocity. But you do not pause.

You sidestep the Sack Man as he tries to snatch you up with his thin, gnarled hands. You let him go by you. As he does, you step into Form of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, whirling to gather momentum. Your footwork is precise. As you complete your turn, facing the Sack Man again, you disembowel him with one vicious slice.

Your father falls to the cobblestones. He holds his intestines in his hands. He looks small. He looks frail. He is dying.

And so are you.

Your legs give way. You collapse next to your father. Bobby’s venom is swift and powerful. The cobblestones are cool against your cheek.

Enpi, the half dark gathers above you and your father, coalescing into an opaque, full dark cloud. You cannot see this, for your eyes are now closed as you lie dying, but black, wispy tendrils of the half dark rush from every part of the city-state to be here. To be here with you. To be here with your father. To be a part of this cloud.

To become one with me.

For the first time in the three years since I have arrived in Chicago, I can see the half-light of dusk. I can see the evening as it truly should be, for the half dark no longer obscures it.

La Petite de Haïti Chicago used to look this way, especially now, especially in winter. Enpi, I arrived, and I did not save the children of Chicago. I could not save the children of Chicago.

It was not my fault. The Lord Mayor’s assembly line production was flawed. It churned out defective steam-clock hearts. Those hearts—my hearts—killed Chicago’s children with their brittle springs and their wobbly cams.

And so, the half dark descended. And with it, came the Pogo. I was distraught. My despair was great.

This must be a shock to you, finding out your father is the Sack Man, and your mother is the half dark. But the Children of Night are drawn to one another.

Sometimes, the results are horrible—like the Pogo.

Other times, the results are lovely—like you.

But never did I think the repercussions would be catastrophic—like this.

But this I can fix.

Do not be alarmed; that cold you feel entering your nose and your mouth is just me. Just the half dark. Just La Sirène de la Nuit, healing you, removing the poison.

And do not worry; your father will be well. I will get him a child. A sick one. A dying one. One whose heart is flawed.

That is what the half dark does. That is what I have been doing here. Your father will heal once he has eaten. His strength will return.

You may not like this. You may hate your father for who he is. You may hate me for who I am. But you are of us. You are a Child of Night. And now, you have found your way.

The people of Chicago do not love your father and me, but they will love you. You are brave. You fight well. Their children will no longer be terrorized by the Pogo.

But you will not be able to save them all.

Do not fret. Pa enkyete w. Do not worry. Do not feel guilty. You cannot help this. You are not like me. You cannot be everywhere in this city at once. You must sleep. You must eat. You must go to school.

Tandiske, you will save enough of them. Mothers will thank you in their bedtime prayers. Fathers will commission machetes from the local blacksmith for their precious ti chouchou. Children will chant your name out on the schoolyard. You will become their champion.

So get up. Pick up Tonton Macoute. Go reclaim another tentacular child for her mother. Go fight your monster.

Malon Edwards

Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature  people of color. Malon also serves as Managing Director and Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.

More Shadow Men:

The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards – Something moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me. I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.

Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey – Georg Cantor waits while his wife Vally pulls at the heavy door to the Nervenklinik. The crisp air smells of leaves and wood smoke, but as they pass into the white-tiled halls disinfectant envelops them. The nurse comes and introduces herself. Cantor says nothing. He has not spoken in a month. He rarely even focuses his eyes. The nurse leads them down long passages. Their shoes snap at the marble floor. After many turns, they stop at a white door that opens to his room: a narrow bed covered with taut white sheets, a comfortable chair facing a window that looks out onto a lawn edged by waving oaks, a round rug on the cherry floor.

The Seaweed and the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen – Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou

war01The war is over, we hear. We’ve lost. We look at each other in the dark. What does this mean? We’ve lost so much already. What is it we’ve lost now?

One after the other, we go outside. The sky is draped like a shroud over the town. The sun behind ash and smoke. From our houses. From our fields. Our gardens. A bird hangs in the air, undecided. Can birds still fly now we’ve lost the war?

The foreign boys who are stationed outside have heard they won the war. They drink wine. They fire their guns. They laugh, the victors. Horsed, they circle us. They hoot and jeer. The victors. The stallions. Last night they were weeping at our feet in the dark.

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The boys are gone. It’s just us now. Women. Girls. Every morning, we step out of what remains of our houses and collect the rubble in piles on the street. I used to grow chrysanthemums in my garden. Now it’s sown with cigarettes and shards of glass. The victors’ seeds. I wonder what will grow.

At night we retreat inside. I check on the little mummy that lives in the dark room in the back. Will it stop breathing now we’ve lost the war? I kneel by its side and watch its chest rise and fall, rise and fall, until I’m lost to sleep.

I dream of wedding rings. They come out of my belly button, dozens war02and dozens of wedding rings. I spread them out on the floor and search for my own, but I can’t find it. Then, I remember; it was one of the foreign boys, long ago. After he was finished, he took the ring off my finger. As payment, he said.

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We’ve piled the rubble high, gathered everything we can use: bricks and stones, cement, window frames and planks and metal rods. We stand by our piles and wait for someone to come and build everything back up. Not because we can’t do it ourselves, no. But if no one comes back, what would be the point?

The glass in my yard is still gleaming beneath the soil. It’s yet to bloom.

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The man comes early one morning. His khakis are worn and dusty. They hang off him, too large for his frame, or his frame diminished from wearing them for too long. We don’t know him. Is he a victor? Is he one of our own? He seems our age. His hair is black and sleek like a crow’s feathers. His features slender, his fingers long and thin.

war03He starts picking my pile of rubble apart. He loads the stones on his back, the planks, the rods. He kneels by my house’s crumbling wall while I look on. He nods at me. We don’t exchange any words. Do we even speak the same language? He mixes dirt with water for my wall. My glass garden catches the dim light of the sun.

At night, I pull him inside. He’s cut his hands on the glass. I clean them with water and soap. His skin is soft. I want to kiss it. Do we still kiss now we’ve lost the war? He cups my face in his palms. I trace the gentle outline of his chin, the beautiful angle of his cheekbones.

I take him to the back room, show him the mummy in its bed. Its breathing forever the same. “It’s been here a long time,” I say. “Ever since they took my son.” He looks at me, but I don’t know if he understands. “If you don’t mind it, you can stay,” I add.

When he slips under the covers with me, khakis shed and grime washed off, his body is warm and smooth and supple. His body like mine. We don’t make a sound. All I can hear is the mummy’s breath in the dark.

Later, I dream of crow’s feathers and silk.

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Months pass, but no others come to our town. We finish fixing my house, and together with the other women we rebuild the rest. The women ply him with gifts of whatever they can spare, but he accepts none. I fear they’ll find out how unlike other men he is when they touch his slender arms, when they stand too close to him, peering at his long neck, his beardless, stubbleless chin. But nobody says anything. They smile when they see him coming home to me every night. Are they bitter? Are they lonely? Do we get to feel lonely now we’ve lost the war?

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war04Soon, we marry. There’s no priest. No rings either. The women stand us one next to the other, shoulder to shoulder, same frame, same height. They rain flowers on our heads and wash our feet with cool milk. “You’re wife and husband now,” they say. “Kiss.” We still kiss, after all. The women cheer. They hug each other. Bitter. Happy. There are blades of grass sprouting amidst the glass in my yard. My man smiles, but he doesn’t speak.

Nobody wishes us children. “For all we’ve lost, there’s true joy here,” they say.

Back at the house, the mummy is still breathing. Despite all the joy.

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My man, he lets his hair grow out. He ties it into a ponytail when he goes outside to chop wood. I watch him from the door, how he swings his axe up and down. My man. He grunts every time he brings the axe down on a log. He hasn’t spoken a word in all the time we’ve been together. I wonder what his voice would sound like. He sees me and dries his brow, a solemn look on his face.

Later, I find him standing over the mummy, trying to smother it with a pillow. He’s crying. I touch his shoulder and slowly take the pillow from his hands. His hair cascades down his back, darker than ever.

“It doesn’t work that way, love,” I tell him.

At night, I offer to braid his hair like I do mine. He lets me.

“Speak to me,” I plead.

We lie in the dark, the mummy’s soft breathing droning on, lulling us to sleep.

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My man’s voice is deep, it turns out, like a river.

He never speaks to me, but he starts singing one night when we press our bodies together in bed. He sings all night long. Melodies I’ve never heard before, in a language I don’t understand. It makes me think of the boys, the victors, how they cheered and laughed all those years ago.

In the morning, I lay my head on the mummy’s bed, check if its chest is still moving. When he sees me, my man answers with a song of drawn-out vowels and sharp turns that cut like glass.

The mummy breathes in slowly, then exhales before the song ends.

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Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, the dramaturge of Adrift Performance Makers (@AdriftPM), and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

Lost & Found:

Red Mask, by Jessica Lin May – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves.

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

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Rachael Acks

To Mr. T.H., happy birthday.

SWOOP


Welcome, honored guest,
to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.

Before proceeding, we respectfully remind you to check the condition of your crystal spirit glass; it should be free of all cracks, chips, or blemishes to be able to properly capture and concentrate energies. Please take advantage of the sanitizer provided at the door, which will remove any lingering ectoplasm. Should your spirit glass develop an imperfection during the course of your meal, new ones will be available for purchase at a reasonable rate.

This menu will address the spirits in recommended tasting order for maximum piquancy, though our guests are of course welcome to explore the experience however they might like.

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The manifestation may be found over the lightly stained floorboards where the house’s pianoforte once rested. Warm flavors of charred wood and cloves harmonize over a dark mineral undertone that hints at a long history of violence perpetrated upon others. Sharp spiciness bursts upon the tongue, representing the surprise at the moment of death, a grace note of the unexpected. Note the floral scent that lingers after you’ve enjoyed your taste, the way it changes and enhances the preceding flavor.

Our historian believes this manifestation to be Martha Ridley, matriarch of the family, who was murdered in 1919 by a burglar, according to police records. A cane belonging to her has been brought down from the house’s attic, the smooth polish on the handle and the multitude of microscopic cracks throughout the shaft indicating vigorous use.

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Open the antique ice box to find our next manifestation in the darkened interior, which is far too small to contain the full body of an adult man. To the discerning nose, the metallic hints of blood and salt linger even to this day, contained in the scraps of stained rope that sit at the bottom of the box. This spirit is redolent of leather, woodsmoke, and high-grade tobacco, decadently masculine. An acrid taste lingers, as of burnt leaves in the autumn, an echo of more drawn-out agonies, overlaid with a sweetness of hothouse flowers, familiar from the first taste.

This ice box is believed to be the last resting place of handyman Edward Smith, thought to have left the employ of the Ridleys in April of 1917 after the declaration of war on Germany, intent on joining the army. Records show that he never made it to the recruitment office. A picture recovered from a trunk in the attic shows him to be an uncommonly attractive young man, posing unselfconsciously with an ax before the trees.

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Outside the kitchen stands one of the manor’s larger trees. Under its strongest branch you will find a manifestation redolent with gunpowder, gin, and orange peel, the strong relic of a man cut down in his prime. The flavor is, sadly, somewhat muddled with a cacophony of metallics unthinkingly inculcated at time of death. If you hold your glass to the moon, you’ll catch a hint of the olive drab color that had become the staple of army uniforms during World War I.

A few steps away the second manifestation waits, a much more subtle mix of greenery, ocean salt, and the delightfully domestic sweetness of bread. Fascinatingly, the orange peel of taste #3 carries over to #4, linking the two inextricably together. This subtlety is almost overwhelmed by a contrasting burst of bright mint and dark truffle, clarity and despair that make for a decadent, almost chocolatey finish—violence turned inward.

Taste #3 has been identified as Corporal Jeremiah Green, from archived picture postcards of his lynching on May 12, 1921. He had returned home for leave and was accused of assault by Elizabeth Ridley (daughter of Martha), despite having never before been on the Ridley House grounds. Taste #4 is thought to be where her brother Nathaniel Ridley committed suicide three days later, by means of Corporal Green’s service pistol. Rumor has it he had been planning to leave Ridley House within the week, departing for New York City—with Corporal Green.

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On your way to the final taste, we encourage you to stop by the vegetable garden, study, and nursery. The manifestations in these areas are not well-defined enough to offer the sort of experience we prefer for our guests, but will whet the appetite and sharpen the senses. In the nursery, see how many distinct presences you might find; our most experienced sommeliers have caught between seven and nine, not quite overwhelmed by the sweetness of hothouse flowers.

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A fitting end to the evening, this manifestation is the reason for our limited run at the Ridley house; not anchored by the dark chords of abrupt or violent death, we expect it to be fully consumed within the month. Strongly sweet and floral with satisfaction to the point of being almost cloying; seek below the surface to find the bitterness of quinine, the spicy heat of foxglove, and lingering almond.

This is the known manifestation of Elizabeth Ridley, deceased due to heart failure in 1992 at the age of 90. She was born in Ridley House and is never known to have left the grounds, though she found local fame by cultivating hothouse orchids. Drink deeply and you may hear her reported final words whispered in an incongruously young voice: “We are the same, you and I, but I enjoyed my feast while you have only the dregs.”
SWOOP

rachaelRachael Acks (now Alex Acks) is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF.
They’re a proud Angry Robot with their novel Hunger Makes the Wolf forthcoming in March 2017. They’ve written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Alex lives in Denver with their two furry little bastards, where they twirl their mustache, watch movies, and bicycle. For more information, see http://www.rachaelacks.com.

Other Tastes:

The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou – When Lilia came into her parents’ bedroom one night, eyes sleepy and tin soldier firmly clasped in her little hands, complaining that his singing wouldn’t let her sleep, her Ma thought she’d had a nightmare. She pried the soldier from her daughter’s fingers, placed him on a high shelf in the closet, and locked the door.

The Law of the Conservation of Hair, by Rachael K. Jones – That we passed the time on the shuttle to the asteroid belt reading aloud from Carl Sagan; that we agreed the aliens were surely made of star stuff too, in their flat black triangular fleet falling toward Earth like a cloud of loosed arrows.

Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, by Sunny Moraine – Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows. Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

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The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou

First

When Lilia came into her parents’ bedroom one night, eyes sleepy and tin soldier firmly clasped in her little hands, complaining that his singing wouldn’t let her sleep, her Ma thought she’d had a nightmare. She pried the soldier from her daughter’s fingers, placed him on a high shelf in the closet, and locked the door. Then, she motioned towards Lilia’s sleeping father and let the girl slip under the covers between the two of them.

In the morning, Lilia seemed to have forgotten all about the toy soldier. Asked where she’d found him, she simply looked at her Ma with watery eyes. “I dreamt of someone sad,” she said.

“Who, my love?” her mother asked. “Who did you dream about?” But the girl wouldn’t say.

The next night, Ma woke to the muffled sound of the soldier’s singing. She got out of bed, and by moonlight unlocked the closet, cracking the door open just a tiny bit. The singing spilled out clear and warm and sorrowful, in a language she could not understand. The sound made something inside her chest tighten, but she wasn’t frightened. She opened the closet door wider and took the singing soldier in her hand. “What a curious, curious thing you are,” she whispered.

She drew the window curtains and held the soldier up to the light. The song poured out of his parted lips, but the rest of him was lifeless: his eyes empty, frozen wide; his body stiff and cold, right foot on a boulder, right hand closed around a tiny bayonet. She wrapped him in a blanket, put him back in the closet, and went to sleep, lulled by the heavy breathing of her husband. That night, her dreams were filled with images of a faraway but oddly familiar land. There was a smoking chimney—or was it a whole house on fire? A frozen lake. Men dancing—or were they marching? Were these knives or roses between their teeth? A foreign bride showered in flowers.

She told her husband about the singing soldier the next morning while he was getting ready for the fields, still heavy with sleep. He laughed it off and so she said: “I’ll show you.” She took the soldier out of the closet and unwrapped the blanket tenderly, as if presenting her husband with a rare gift. Pa looked at the silent soldier with narrowed eyes—and do they look a bit alike, Ma thought, with the dark moustache, the handsome curve of the shoulders? She placed the soldier in his open palm. He weighed the soldier, then ran his finger over the tiny weapon, the tiny beret, the tiny boots.

soldier01“You dreamt it,” Pa said, but there was fear in his eye, and so he locked the soldier in a wooden coffer, and took the coffer out to a clearing in the forest for good measure.

On the third night, the soldier’s solemn song traveled back to the house, poking holes into their dreams with his tiny bayonet. Pa got out of bed, put on his boots, and walked into the forest, moonlight guiding him through the narrow paths and tall trees. The crickets fell silent at the sound of the soldier’s somber voice. Pa found the coffer and put it carefully under his arm. He brought it back to the house and, resigned to the oddness of the world, put the singing soldier on the mantelpiece.

“It is a miracle,” Pa said. “It is good fortune.”

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Then

Lilia and Pa worked the land from dawn ’til dusk while Ma labored in the big house. She cleaned and cooked and scrubbed, and fussed in the yard with the chickens and the goats. She loved the big house. She loved every stair, every wall, every plank of the floor. And she loved the yard, the chickens, the goats, the warm, yellow days and the green, green grass.

soldier2Sometimes, while drying a porcelain plate or polishing one of her mother’s bronze pots, Ma would think back on the place she lived when she was little—the motherland, the fatherland—before she got married and moved to this new land she now loved. The tall skies, the flowering trees, all so far away from her now, receding in the trenches of her life. Often, these thoughts made her wonder where the tin soldier might be from, how he ended up in her daughter’s sleepy hands, singing his sad, unknowable songs every dusk. But then a neighbor would stop by with a request for aniseed or eggs, or with news of aggressions near the borders—borders, she’d think then, what a concept!—and her thoughts of lost lands would scatter, and she would forget.

With the day’s work done, with tired bones and aching backs, but somehow satisfied with all that, the whole family would gather around the fireplace and listen to the soldier’s melancholy tune. Ma would thumb her mother’s necklace and think about the orchard in the house she’d left behind, the father’s house. And the soldier would sing all night long, never tiring, never pausing. They still didn’t understand the language, but, in time, they started picking up clusters of syllables and filling them with meaning of their own. There was “mountain” and “promise” and “come back.” Soon, they made up stories about the soldier’s origin: a broken homeland, a forgotten lover, a friendship lost to war.

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In the End

When the conquerors came from their foreign land beyond the border, the family thought these men spoke the singing soldier’s tongue—and did they look a bit alike, with the hue of their skin, the handsome curls, the delicate length of their fingers? How strange, the ways of the world.

They didn’t know what the conquerors were saying, but eventually learned to understand them well enough. They picked up: “papers” and “ancestors” and “this land.” This land, what? Pa wondered. Surely, the conquerors meant this land was theirs, that it had always been theirs. But how could land belong to anyone?

They were allowed to stay in the house for a while, made to work the land on the conquerors’ behalf. Pa and Lilia ploughed the fields and planted the seed and then waited and waited, watching the rain fall from the shallow skies, mending their tools and rewelding their broken ploughs, and later they harvested the conquerors’ crops just as they used to their own before. But Pa would pause every now and then, dry his forehead with his sleeve or push his fingers against his closed eyes and say: “It’s not the same working under someone’s boot.” And then he wouldn’t speak for hours.

soldier3Ma suffered from the dreaming sickness she’d had as a child, but which had gone away after she’d gotten married. She would dream with her eyes wide open for days on end, the life in her eyes flickering, now bright, now dim. When she finally woke up, she would tell them about the places she’d been to in her dreams: a lake so small you could empty it out with a teaspoon; a ship stranded in the desert; pubescent girls scattering feathers out of moving trains; a milk so sweet it drove men mad.

Soon, the conquerors moved them out of the big house and into the small shed in the yard. Pa put the tin soldier on a shelf above the stove and again they gathered around every evening, huddled close after a long day’s work. Lilia would translate the fragments she understood. “Honey,” the soldier’s songs said, and “red, red poppies,” and “this land.”

The soldier never stopped filling their nights with singing. Not as Lilia grew thin and then thinner, not as Ma fell into her dreams for longer and longer, until the life in her eyes flickered one night and was extinguished the next. They buried her in the clearing where Pa had left the soldier’s coffer, all that time ago, in a previous life.

After Ma died, Pa and Lilia were finally driven from the land they used to love as if it were their own. Lilia took her father by the hand and squeezed it as he looked back onto the fields, the trees, the big house. “It’s land,” she said, and then waved her arm towards the forest and the hills that lay beyond it, and at the yellow sky above it all. “It’s only land.”

They took with them the coffer, filled with a handful of things: Ma’s necklace, their papers, the tin soldier, a steel knife, a smuggled pistol, an extra pair of boots. They lived in the woods for some time, on beds of soft green, under the paling light of the stars. And the soldier, the soldier sang them to sleep every night. His songs said: “Lakes,” and “pianos,” and “roses made of tin.”

When a group of conquering men descended on Pa early one morning, shouting and gesturing with the tips of their bayonets, Lilia hid in the forest. She thought the men came to take away the coffer that held her family’s last possessions, but they were not interested in that. She watched as the men strung her father up a tree until he stopped fighting and all the light went out, and all she could think was: What a curious, curious thing men are. After the men went away, Lilia came out of her hiding, hugged the coffer tight, and fell asleep under the soles of her father’s feet.

When she woke in the dark, all the stars gone out and her father’s feet in the sky, she struck the ground with her fists until she bled and cold soil stuck to her knuckles. Then, she built a fire. She used her family’s papers as kindling, wrapped Ma’s necklace around her left wrist, threw her old boots away and put on the new. Last, she fed the wooden coffer to the flames. When the embers shone bright and red, Lilia hid the soldier in her palm and held him close to her heart. Then, she melted the soldier on the knife’s blade over the blazing embers, fashioned him into a bullet using a crude clay mold, and loaded him into her pistol.

“You will kill the next man I see,” she told the bullet.

Before meeting the next man’s chest, the bullet sang. “This land,” it said. “This land, this land.”
end-of-story-nov

Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, a dramaturge, and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Kenyon Review Online, sub-Q, Interfictions, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or come say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

More Quick Ways to Break Your Heart:

The Law of the Conservation of Hair, Rachael K. Jones – That it has long been our joke that our hair lengths are inversely proportional, and cannot exceed the same cumulative mass it possessed on the day we met; that our faith was bound by this same Law, your exuberant pantheism balanced against my quiet nihilism; that this Law does not apply to beards.

Serein, Cat Hellisen – It’s always about the ones who disappear. I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.

Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, Sunny Moraine – Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows. Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

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Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson

They are running the perimeter again, slipping in and out of cover, sun and shadow. Pilar knows the route by rote: crouch here, dash there, slow then quick. While they run, she ticks up and down the list of emergency overrides, because it has become a ritual to her over the course of the long nightmare, a rosary under her chafed-skinless fingertips. She speaks to her exo, curses at it, begs it to stop. The exo never responds. Maybe it is sulking, like Rocio in one of her moods.

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They are not running the perimeter. Pilar has stopped eating, and her exo is focusing all its attention on the problem, leaving them hunched like a rusting gargoyle on the deserted tiles of Plaza Nueva. The sudden stillness makes her think that maybe it’s all over. Then an emergency feeding tube is forced down her throat, scraping raw, and the exo pumps food replacement down her gullet like she’s a baby bird. Rocio would have never done that. Never.

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They are running the perimeter again, and Pilar’s nose is bleeding. The hot trickle tastes like copper on her desiccated tongue. She savors it, because not long ago the exo experimented with feeding her recycled vomit. The dregs have itched in her mouth for days. As they round the corner of a blasted car, she hears a whisper in her ear. For a moment she fools herself into thinking it’s Rocio—she thinks about Rocio as often as she can. The dip of her collarbone under her fingertips, the laugh from the side of her mouth, the peppermint smell of the wax she used to streak on her hair.

It’s not Rocio. It is the exo, at last. It rumbles in her ear: Define: symbiont.

“A symbiont is fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” Pilar rasps, tongue clumsy with disuse.

The exo does not respond. Maybe she should have said something else.

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They might be running the perimeter again. Pilar is not sure of anything. Her head is a spiral of heat and static, her skin thrumming ice. The exo is dumping combat chemicals and painkillers into her intravenous feed. She prays to gods and saints and devils for an overdose, but the exo knows its chemistry too well. She can only drift there cocooned, sweating and shivering, and wait for—

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They are running the perimeter again, but Pilar has buried herself in memories, barely tasting the stale air of the exo, barely feeling the tug and pull.

She’s buried herself in remembering the first time she was in Granada, in the taut piano-wire days before the Caliphate made landfall. On leave with Rocio, darting from bar to tapas bar in the icy rain, insulating themselves against the storm present and storm coming with cañas of foamy beer. In a bar called Shambalah, decorated with black-and-white pornography stills, she completed Rocio’s facial tat with her fingers and kissed her chapped mouth.

They were both out of uniform, and the rowdy pack of students only saw Rocio’s damp hijab, not the endo-exo handshake implant peeking out from underneath. One of them was drunk enough to hurl a Heineken bottle at them. Rocio had to wrestle Pilar’s arm down to keep her from using the smashed razor edge of it on the boy’s fingers.

They retreated back into the rain, where animated graffiti shambled along the walls of alleyways, slowly dissolving. Rocio rubbed her face and said everything was about to come apart, and Pilar replied, not us, never us, we need each other too much. But Rocio only smiled her saddest smile.

Later, in the cramped room of their pension, with the key in the heater but the lights dimmed, they made love that caused Pilar to forget about the eager, clumsy boys from her hometown and about everything else, too. In the dark, their endo-exo implants glowed soft blue. She ran her fingers around Rocio’s, tracing where smooth carbon met skin.

They say a little of us gets stuck in there, Rocio said. When we plug in. Pull out. Plug in again. Memory fragments, whole ones even. Enough for a little ghost.

I don’t believe it, Pilar said.

Rocio drifted to sleep quickly but Pilar stayed awake a long time after, still breathing in her scent, still holding her lean waist and thinking she would never let go, not ever.

Inside the exo, she tries to feel Rocio’s skin on her skin.

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They are running the perimeter again. The exo jerks Pilar mercilessly from cover to cover. She keeps her eyes closed and pretends she is boneless. Trying to fight the motion last week shredded her shoulder muscle, and the exo is out of painkillers because it used them on her in one long, numbing drug binge that makes her wonder, sometimes, if her brain has been permanently damaged.

Exo endo is symbiont. Exo need endo need endo.

She startles. The exo hasn’t spoken since it asked its first question.

Love is symbiont. Exo need endo need exo.

“You don’t need me,” Pilar pleads. “You don’t need me. I don’t need you.”

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They are not running the perimeter. They are trudging up the stony spine of the Sacromonte, where her squad cleaned out the radical-held caves with gas and gunfire. Where she’d managed to take shelter when they SAT-bombed Granada in a final act of defiance, obliterating the half-evacuated city and turning the Alhambra to rubble.

Now the Andalusian winter sun glints off shrapnel and the husk of Rocio’s exo where it fell just meters from safety. Pilar recognizes the scorched smiley-face decal, the twisted arrangement of limbs. The implant at the base of her skull tingles.

She knows why the exo’s AI is warped, corrupted past repair. The exo must know it, too.

All those weeks ago, after she crept from the collapsed cave, she couldn’t leave without seeing Rocio’s corpse entombed in its exo, and she couldn’t leave without some part of Rocio to hold on to. So she’d taken Rocio’s implant, cut it carefully out of her brain stem, stomach churning with each squelch of coagulated blood and gray matter. She’d plugged it into her exo’s onboard, hoping for some small echo of Rocio in code, some small ghost.

Then she’d gone to check for survivors, to run the perimeter one final time.

“You’re not her,” Pilar says. “You don’t understand. This is all error. All error.”

But there are other memories, ones she doesn’t spend time in. Small explosions and long sullen silences after she saw Rocio laughing her sideways laugh with someone else. A screaming match that ended with Pilar going outside the barracks and slamming her hands into the quickcrete wall hard enough to shatter a knuckle. Putting a mole in her tablet to see who else she was speaking to.

The morning of the final push up the mountain, when they were sliding into their exos, gearing up, and Rocio told her she was putting in a transfer request and Pilar said don’t you do this to me, please don’t fucking do this to me.

She knows what she has to tell the exo. She has to make it understand that what it saw in Rocio’s implant was not a symbiont. Not love. That she should have let Rocio go a long time ago.

But all the words die in her throat, and now the exo is turning back down the mountain.

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They are running the perimeter again, while Pilar dreams of Rocio’s skin on her skin.

end-of-story-nov

rich-larsonRich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and at 23 now writes from Edmonton, Alberta. His short work has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon and appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Apex. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com

Do Also Read:

website_sept15thumbThe Law of the Conservation of Hair, Rachael K. Jones – That on our first date, we solemnly swore this vow: If we ever found a wardrobe portal, take it; or a TARDIS, hitch a ride; or a UFO, board it without hesitation; that for such an act we should forgive each other implicitly and completely, because there would be no time to ask, and you might only get one shot.

26-thumbnailSerein, Cat Hellisen – It’s always about the ones who disappear. I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.

Shimmer-24-ThumbnailCome My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, Sunny Moraine – Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows. Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray, by Gwendolyn Kiste

One bite is all it takes. That is — and always has been — the rule.

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We discover the first girl in autumn. She’s tucked beneath the tallest tree in our orchard, dozing there like a ripened apple toppled to earth.

I’m five years old, and the world is still gossamer and strange, my fragile memories like a soft cake that’s not yet risen, so part of me is almost certain that finding a girl one morning, sleeping where she doesn’t belong, must be the most ordinary thing for those who have lived long enough.

I plod behind my father as he carries her to the barn. “What happened?”

“A witch, no doubt,” he says, but I don’t believe him, because he blames witches for everything. A thunderstorm on the day of harvest, dark spots on the flesh of Cortlands and Braeburns, a splinter in his palm from an apple crate—always the work of a spell, according to him. Yet this blighted land, faded and cruel, seems more like magic has forgotten us entirely. Of the whole village, only our orchard retains a speck of color, and with the crop waning, bushel by bushel, each year, even that won’t last.

My father places the girl in a pile of wilted straw, away from the wind and the sun, and she curls up, crumpled and lifeless, like an origami swan crushed beneath a heavy boot. In her knotted hand, she cradles a tiny red apple. There’s barely a blemish on the skin. A single taste bewitched her.

“I’ll go into the village.” My father shrugs on his seam-split jacket. “Whoever she is, her family’s probably looking for her.”

He hesitates, then adds, “You stay here.”

He says it as though I long to be near him, as though we’re a proper father and daughter, good and whole, not the broken pieces of something ugly and aching.

I stare at the straw and say nothing. Without so much as a nod goodbye, my father vanishes through the barn doors, and I watch his figure become smaller and smaller on the horizon, folding in on itself until he’s gone.

There’s one path to the village, and he never ventures off it. It’s safest that way. On the border to the north, the shadows of the forest murmur nonsense and stretch taut fingers toward the orchard. There are the trees here populated with blooms and apples, and the trees there that yield only gloom, and a line in between, our property line, that divides one from the other, shelter from the unknown.

“Ignore the forest,” my father always says. “Only decay lives there.”

As if decay doesn’t live here with us too, our conjoined twin that never rests.

When I’m sure my father won’t double back, I breathe deep and edge closer to the girl. She smells of lilacs and lilies, bouquets that no longer blossom on this land. For hours, I sit with her in silence, because I’ve got nothing to talk about, at least nothing this girl is probably eager to hear. She has plenty of problems of her own. She doesn’t need mine.

Though she has one problem I can help with. I ease the apple from her fingers and drop it in the pocket of my gingham apron. If it was indeed poisoned, there’s no reason for her to embrace it. I’ll keep it for her. I’ll protect her, the best I can. Too late is better than not at all.

A sliver of moon crests above us, and its meager light brings my father home. It brings someone else too. A young man arrayed in handsome silks and fine jewels, clearly a stranger to our province, since no one here can afford bread, much less such glittery baubles.

He kneels to the straw and inspects the girl’s face.

“She’s beautiful,” he says, and my flesh prickles as he forces his mouth over hers.

I part my lips to ask if he even knows her, if he ever saw her before this night, but I exhale instead and my words dissolve like a plume of smoke in the chilled air. It would do no good to speak. Little girls don’t earn the right to question the wisdom of men. We can smile and blush and nod our heads, but we can’t tell them no.

Eyes open, the girl gags, and I wonder whether it’s residual poison on her tongue or the taste of his kiss that nauseates her.

He drapes her, still groggy, over his shoulders and declares her his bride. The next day, they make it official at the sagging chapel in the town square.

We never learn where this prince came from. Even after the wedding, the girl’s family can’t pinpoint his kingdom on a map.

“It’s somewhere to the East,” they say, and that’s precise enough to satisfy them.

The villagers don’t search for the witch who soured the apple. They’re busy cooing over satin and white stallions, and tethering rusted tin to the tail-board of the royal carriage.

The young ladies cry because it’s all so romantic.

“I want an apple and a prince,” they say, and cool themselves with folded fans made of lace, torn and yellowed.

My father’s chest expands with feverish zeal like a hot air balloon inflating for exhibition, and I divine the thought turning over in his mind.

This will be wonderful for business.

After the ceremony’s over and the villagers scatter like dried rice, I remain on the road, my stomach cramping as though I’m the one who consumed poison.

The apple’s still in my apron. I take it home and hide it away.

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One by one, the girls find their way to the orchard, and once they start arriving, they never stop, like the tide breaking over the shore.

My father makes quiet deals with the families.

“I’ll keep them safe,” he says, and the mothers and fathers agree, because they have nothing else. Their faces, all soiled and sunken, are hungry, a hunger that even a month of hearty meals wouldn’t satiate. This land has been barren so long that the desperation’s in their marrow, deeper than the salt beneath the earth, and they look to us and this orchard and our apples as if their daughters might earn a fate here that doesn’t mean starvation.

“How do you know the prince will come?” they ask.

My father flashes them a serpent’s smile. “Have faith,” he says. “Faith always discerns the believers.”

They pay their gold coins, often a lifelong savings, and in our cottage by candlelight, my father counts the money each night, pacing circles like a vulture that dines on the carrion of frail dreams.

By now, it’s been five years since the first girl, the one who went east and never returned. We never did find her kingdom, but her family claims they receive a letter each spring.

“She delivered an heir in December,” they say, but if you ask them, they can’t tell you the child’s name or whether it’s a boy or girl. They can’t tell you if the daughter’s happy in matrimony either, but that seems unimportant somehow. She married a prince. What more could a poor village girl desire?

Before the families leave their daughters to our care, they make special requests. They ask for glass coffins where the girls can slumber, but they forget there is no glassmaker in this town, no artisan of any kind. All we can offer is a pile of straw in our barn. A hideous option, but my father’s clever. He can spin even an unseemly truth into a gold-plated lie.

“It must be straw,” he says. “A prince won’t come otherwise.”

He never asks if they have hay fever. After they’re nestled in beds of fodder, the girls sniffle through hollow dreams, eyes swollen and red welts blossoming like rosebuds on their skin.

“No one will want to kiss them now,” I say, and my father hushes me.

Such talk is bad for business. And business is what keeps us alive, keeps porridge in our bowls, keeps the orchard thriving for the young ladies who wear their best dresses and lace tattered ribbons in their hair.

But a few don’t skip so merrily to the gallows.

“She’s nervous,” one mother says, dragging her heart-faced daughter behind her. “That won’t affect the magic, will it?”

My father regards the girl, who stares at her threadbare shoes. “Not in the case of such a deserving young princess,” he says.

At this, the mother brightens as though she always believed her progeny was royalty-in-waiting, and at last, someone outside the family has confirmed it.

The girl, however, does not brighten. Her skin blanches the color of bone, and when I peer into her face, it’s as though I’m looking through the muscle and sinew to see what’s beneath. She’s no more than fifteen. Some families hold on to their daughters longer, clutching them with gaunt hands, delaying the inevitable, always hoping a better option might materialize. But in this place where the land is stained gray and the wheat won’t flower again, there is nothing better, and the longer you wait, the more the girl loses that freshness in the cheeks.

My father makes a deal, a fair one he calls it, and the mother bids farewell to her child.

Except for this ritual, daughters are rarely allowed to be alone. “It’s unsafe,” the villagers say and keep them under brass lock and key. Not until after the price of their future is paid like a macabre dowry are they turned loose to pick the perfect apple.

Their first taste of freedom is their last.

Along the manicured trails of the orchard, I tread solemnly behind the girl. This is against the rules, and if my father catches me, my backside will meet a belt. I don’t care. Like a ghost, I always follow.

It’s only May, a time made for fragile blossoms, not fully bloomed fruit, but that doesn’t matter. The magic here grows stronger each season, and even in the biting cold of winter, these trees now flourish with ready apples in all varieties, including ones that never used to grow on this land. There’s no blush elsewhere in the village—our property has more than enough for everyone.

After the first girl, we were sure the nearby forest cursed our land, but we need no witchcraft to cast this spell. The apples do the work for us, the poison readymade and choosy. The men can eat any of the varieties—Jonagolds, Golden Delicious, Galas—no problem. It’s the girls who take one bite and slumber. They don’t get to savor the whole thing. What if the second taste is sweeter than the first? They’ll never know.

Sobbing, the reluctant girl closes her eyes, and fumbles blindly for a branch. She chooses her apple—her fate—and succumbs to the dirt. I collapse cross-legged beside her, and the tears streak down my face like wax from a flame. Though she can’t hear me, I tell her I’m sorry.

The apple, plump and rosy, droops from her fingers, and I pry it free and preserve it in my pocket.

When my father comes to claim her, his temporary property, I hide behind green leaves the shape of giant hands, always reaching to the sky. This is the edge of the world, and the dark forest unfurls beyond, calling in a voice sweet and clear as a cathedral bell. With fingers buried in both ears, I do my best not to listen. The forest is known for its tricks. That’s what the men from the village say. It devours the living like a blackened sea. It devoured my mother—or maybe my mother let herself be devoured, that honeyed evening the summer before the first girl came to us.

I never asked my father why she left. I didn’t have to. Her sobs like endless lullabies sang me to sleep in the cradle, and the constellation of bruises on the soft flesh of her arms told me what he did to her. What all men who spin golden lies are capable of doing.

Before dawn, a prince from the south arrives, wearing a black velvet cape and a string of blood-red garnets around his neck. He kisses the girl hard on the mouth, and I’m sure she’ll suffocate beneath his weight, but no, she struggles awake, her gaze fixed on the one who owns her now.

“My bride,” he says.

This is what they always call the girls. Not beloved or partner or lover, but bride. A word that implies something fleeting and young. How many days must be marked on a calendar for a girl to shift from bride to wife? What is the passage of time that transforms her from gleaming and new like a magpie’s treasure into old and frayed, a burden to be borne? There must be a moment in which this happens, a moment that cleaves the world in two. Does she feel the change stirring within her, a pregnant storm ready to unleash its havoc? Or does it happen without her knowledge, and she only sees it one morning in the way her prince no longer looks lovingly at the ripe features of her face?

This girl of fifteen does not smile at the altar or wave goodbye from the golden carriage. She simply stares at her shoes, no longer threadbare, but polished and silken, the footwear of royalty. She should be happy. That’s what the village believes. Even her family doesn’t see the shadow that falls over her eyes like a valance of wayward curls. They let her depart for a castle—a mirage in the distance—and they celebrate when she’s gone.

“Spring weddings are so lovely, don’t you think?” her mother says, red-faced and laughing, as she drinks the last goblet of mead from a dust-caked bottle the family kept for just this occasion.

All the villagers are here, the chortling fools, and because the enchantment my father sells like bone china is responsible for the marriage, he’s guest of honor. That makes me guest of honor too. Every boy asks me to dance, and every boy stomps off cursing when I shake my head, folding and unfolding my ragged hem. I have special clothes, an old dress of my mother’s, I’m supposed to wear on days like these, but I cling close to my gingham apron, and when I walk home after the revelry ends, alone since my father’s too drunk to stand, the apple feels a little heavier in my pocket.

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The men who come to the orchard aren’t always princes. Some are dukes or counts or barons. The girls and their families rarely know the difference, so long as the groom has a title and a castle and land.

But sometimes he doesn’t have any of those things. There’s nothing to stop a pauper from waltzing through the door and kissing the first ruby lips he sees. Because who’s going to check his credentials? We can’t locate whole kingdoms, let alone account for exact wealth.

“It’s your orchard,” an angry family says to my father after the daughter is married off to an unemployed blacksmith from the village. “You shouldn’t have let that roustabout in here.”

“No refunds,” my father says.

Every morning, I visit the girls, their wilted bodies resting in neat rows. Not all of them are chosen. We now house a decade’s worth of would-be princesses. My father has to build a second, then a third barn to accommodate them. Arms crossed over their chests, they doze here, ageless—no laugh lines where they’ve smiled too long or stitches in their brow where they’ve frowned too deep. On their faces, there’s no roadmap of their lives, because their lives sputtered out too soon.

I say their names as I walk by. It’s the only way I can help the world remember. My father doesn’t care. He brushes the grime from the curves on their skin and calls it a job well done.

“It’s their own fault,” he says to me. “They had no faith a prince would appear, so none came for them. Silly girls.”

I suddenly wish for a glass coffin, so that I might shatter it and use the jagged shards to open my father’s chest and see if he does indeed have anything beating in the cavity where a heart should be. I bet he sports a hollow chasm, and if I screamed into it, my words would echo back to me. That’s all he can offer—emptiness. There’s certainly no love between us. My devotion, from daughter to father, dried up years ago like the wells in the village that surrender only sand and sorrow. I want to tell him so, tell him how much I hate him, but it’s fear that makes me reticent. All I’ve ever known is fear. Terror of the babbling forest. Dread of what my father would do to me if he could see inside my own heart, how he’d bruise my body like he did my mother’s.

I recite the girls’ names a little louder to steady myself.

When the day is over and my father retires to the cottage to count and recount his money, I check on the forsaken apples. They live in a splintered crate at the far rim of the property, no more than a yard from the mouth of the forest. It’s a good hiding place. Because of his superstitions, my father never ventures that far, always sending me to pull the weeds there.

The crate overflows with rinds and seeds and stems, and while mold should have long ago turned the pieces to dust, the apples are like the girls—decay never touches them.

On the eve of the year’s first snowfall, another daughter arrives. Her parents pay with their last silver coins, and my father releases her into the orchard. Stealthy as a mouse, I tag along a few steps behind, but she’s not like the others. She searches for no apple. Her eyes looking north, this girl wanders past the trees, past my crate, to the boundary of the here and there.

Faltering for a moment, she glances back at me, and I’m caught under the weight of her stare.

“Are you the one who collects the bodies?”

I fidget in the dirt and shake my head.

“Then why are you here?” she asks.

I have no reason to follow the girls. I can’t stop them, can’t help them, can’t do anything except watch like a strange voyeur as they wither and fall.

“I want to keep them safe,” I whisper. “I want them to find true love.”

“Love?” The girl tosses her head back and scoffs. “There’s none of that here. True love breaks the spell, remember? But look around. The spell is stronger than ever.”

She takes a step closer to the forest.

“Please don’t.” I drift toward her, my arm outstretched, frantic to catch her before she’s lost. “You can’t be sure what waits in there.”

“Sometimes that’s better,” she says. “It can be freeing.”

“It can mean death.”

“Maybe.” She smiles. “Maybe not.”

Like my mother before her, she marches into the trees and does not return. Breathless, I lean against the lowest bough and pray she’ll look back again. She never does. Her body dissolves like mist into the darkness.

But she’s not gone. I hear giggling just beyond our property line, and her final words stay with me, sinking into my skin like the sweet scent of rose oil.

For the first and only time, the family receives a refund, and I wonder if at last the wind is changing.

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On my twentieth birthday, my father buys me a new dress for my walk in the orchard.

Though the apples have made us the richest family in the province, he’s a stingy man, and it’s the first gift he’s ever given me. While I’m not grateful, not really, it seems rude to disregard the gesture, so I thank him and don the billows of pink chiffon.

“Good luck,” he says before retiring to bed. “No doubt your prince will come soon.”

My prince. The man who will assume my father’s duties once my father is too old to tend the apples himself.

Evening settles softly on the orchard like black tar dripping from the sky, and I take my father’s candle to guide me. In the playful shadows, I choose my apple—an Empire, sharp and sweet. I thread it between my fingers, turning it over and over, as though I’ll be able to decipher its secrets if only I can see it from the proper angle. Yet there are no secrets here, none worth learning, so I tell myself it’s time. My lips move toward the skin. One bite would be enough to sleep deep and cold, like an infant dipped and drowning in black water. My eyes would close, and I could rest.

But it wouldn’t last. For once, I believe my father. I’m not the same as the girls left behind. I’ve seen how the village boys watch me, ravenous wolves sniffing for blood. There is only this orchard, and I am the one to inherit it. I’m already a princess here. And all the boys, licking the sharp points of their glistening teeth, are desperate to become my prince.

The apple sags in my grasp, and doubt, as old as childhood, creeps inside me like a scarab beetle burrowed beneath the flesh. This isn’t the only way. This can’t be the only way.

The bordering forest calls to me in a voice I recognize, the voice of my mother. My fear melts away, ice in a boiling pot, and the candle as my chaperon, I walk to the edge, a circus performer on a tightrope.

The apple crate lingers still at the border of the forest. With a careful hand, I lower the wick, and the remains of fortunes lost catch in an instant. Though the fire sears my flesh, I clasp the bitten apples and pitch them, one by one, into the treetops of the orchard. These trees are healthy and shouldn’t burn, but on this evening, that makes no difference. Every branch is aglow, burning my nose with an acrid scent, the smell of make-believe hope turning to ash.

All around me, my mother’s laughing, and the gentle lilt in her voice makes me laugh too, makes me scream out with joy, until my muscles quiver and knees buckle beneath me.

The flames graze the indigo sky, and the light must reach to the heavens, or at least to the village, because I can hear the boys, the greedy ones who were waiting for me to crumble, call out to their families and announce the orchard is burning. I can hear my father too. From the cottage door, he shrieks my name, the only name he remembers, and time slips away from me like grains of sand in an open palm. I must finish now, or I won’t finish at all.

This magic is strange. It wasn’t wrought by witches, not the kind with cauldrons and capes anyhow. This magic was ours. We longed to escape the colorless land, and the girls bore the weight of that longing. It was easy to shuck it off on them. Girls are always expected to carry an impossible burden in life, like a thousand bushels of apples strapped upon a single back.

In this way, those entombed in straw are my kin. Though not by blood, they are my sisters, and I love them. From the first to the last, I’ve always loved them. I might be the only one, but one is all it takes to break the spell.

I kiss my fingertips and hold my hand to the sky. The wind carries my love to them, their lips pursed like pale hourglasses. They rouse from heavy dreams, not just the girls here, but those from faraway and forgotten kingdoms too, the princesses and baronesses and countesses who no longer look down in silence and shame. They gaze now to the north, to the unknown, to the trees that cast shadows that aren’t so grim anymore.

My mother whispers my name, and smiling, I turn to the waiting forest.

One bite, and the darkness swallows me whole.

 march-endof

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Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye Magazine as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at www.gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).

 

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

28-thumbnailTo Sleep in the Dust of the Earth, by Kristi DeMeester.  Lea and I met Beth when we were thirteen. That was the year Lea had legs that wouldn’t fill out her shorts. The year I started sneaking Marlboro Lights from my mother’s purse to share with Lea in the back corner of Benjamin Harper’s abandoned lot. “He was going to build on it. A house for his wife. But she died, and he just…” Lea made a fluttering motion with her fingers, scattered the smoke streaming from her lips.

website_sept15thumbBlack Planet, by Stephen Case. Em did not dream the world. When the lights went out and the absence of her brother in the room across the hall became palpable, it was simply there, hanging in the space above her bed. She would stare at its invisible form, spinning silent and unseen, until she slept. Her dreams were not always of the black planet. There were dreams of hospital rooms as well, and of the faces of her parents. Of the house that now was too large for the three of them to fill.

Red Mask, by Jessica May Lin

redmask-header
Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us. The new opium dens are all styled like the old red mansions of the Ming Dynasty, complete with heavy doors twice as tall as we were.

“You come back, you know, if you wear a red dress.”

There were lengths of time when Feng Guniang would walk on the crumbling remnants of the Old City Wall at night wearing a short red qipao embroidered with golden phoenixes, balancing on the parapet barefoot, her arms spread out, teetering like a puppet. I used to beg her to come down. Sometimes there would be other people—strangers, noodle vendors, foreign rich men with fur-lined coats—and we would shout at her together, but she would always go on, laughing like she couldn’t hear us.

Most of the time there would be no one—not even me, on the days I couldn’t bring myself to see her. I danced the last shift alone when she disappeared at midnight, and long after I had wiped the rouge from my face and soaked my tired feet in warm water, I would see her dirty footprints on the white tiles leading into the back room, and hear her sobbing.

She had been the mistress of a German businessman who pulled her out of the river once. He never came to see her while she flirted with death, on the wall, but I saw him sometimes in the Green Dream. He sat at a table in the front right corner with a large group of foreign men, always facing the stage, his opium pipe meditative at the corner of his mouth, watching Feng Guniang. He bought her a mink coat that she would wrap around herself while she sang English lullabies.

When I knew her, Feng Guniang was the Marilyn Monroe of the new opium dens—the one that everybody wanted but nobody could have, and everybody was always trying to save. She had a beauty mark in the center of her forehead and bright green eyes—a gift from a Russian patron—that contained more life than was fair in our part of smog-ridden, overcrowded Shanghai. Her real name was Feng Jinling, but few remember that.

Her pussy opened like a peony, some of the customers tell me, when I sit at one corner of the stage alone and talk to them, long after she has died. They loved her more than me, and I was partially jealous, partially in awe. But I could never hate her, because she always needed us to save her. From the first day I met Feng Guniang, I could sense an empty space in her, filled with some silent wronging, that only expanded until she drowned in it.

I still see Feng Guniang’s ghost, in the old gardens and sponge rockeries on Jiameng Street, wearing her red qipao. She wanders through the bamboo groves of Yuyuan Garden, and cries through the weeping willows by the large goldfish pond. These garden elements are only an illusion, cast by a hidden projector in a rock, and sometimes I am afraid she is an illusion too, but I know those bright green eyes too well. She has kept her gift, even in death.

“Xiao You,” she says as she tries to clasp my shoulders, but her hands sink through my living skin like ice. There is despair in her voice. “Did they look for me after I was gone?”

Ghosts don’t cast shadows in the pond. When I look down at the water, I only see myself, talking to the ripples and the silver fins that flash by.

“You didn’t have to go,” I tell her. “They didn’t care.”

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Feng Guniang came back to haunt the man she loved, who never left his tall, curly-haired German wife for her. Or at least, that’s what I choose to believe. She could’ve died and come back for many reasons, but more than she wanted to die, I believe she wanted to come back. Even as a ghost, she kept that stifled pain inside her—when I brought her steamed dumplings in a bamboo cage and sat with her by the pond with my knees drawn into my chest, drawing in the mud with sticks. I never talked to her, but sometimes she would sing.

There is no way to grow up in New China without feeling angry at something. Sometimes you are angry at what you cannot have, like Feng Guniang, who could not have her married German lover. Sometimes you are angry at things that are unfair, like how the Triads have taken over the water pumps in the capsule slums that crawl hundreds of stories into the air—so that half my month’s salary is spent on a single bucket of water. Sometimes you are angry because you don’t know better than to not be.

Anger in New China was a silent, bruised loneliness that nobody ever talked about. It bristled like the hairs along the spine of a cat, but it was invisible. People pretended not to notice.

Instead, there were opium dens, stuffed with maroon velvet cushions and curtains made from crimson gauze, staffed by porcelain-skinned women with red lips and qipao with high slits in the sides. There was a sex-and-drug euphoria to lose yourself in, so you could ignore how your sons and daughters were dying in overflowing hospital lines, or how the police would easily turn a blind eye as long as you had enough to pay for it. Those days in Shanghai, you were grateful for an excuse to drink your anger down with whiskey shots and exotic cocktails. I know because I served those drinks, in between the hours I spent on the stage.

“Come see the de-ribbed dancers at the Green Dream,” the Boss says to the crowds that pass by outside, the advertisement board drilled into his forehead flashing with my silhouette. “They have their eleventh and twelfth ribs removed, so that they can perform feats of flexibility so outrageous you won’t believe it until you see it. See how tiny their waists are in a corset.”

I wonder where my ribs are—what the Boss did with them after I gave them up as part of my contract. I wonder what happened to Feng Guniang’s ribs after she died, if they became immaterial and pale like her ghost body, or if they rotted slowly like fruit. I like to imagine my ribs are buried in a box somewhere, nestled in soft dirt, where they are safe from the poison of Shanghai.

I used to own a Tibetan mastiff named Happiness, who lived in my three-by-six capsule in the slum tower with me, but he ran away a month ago. I see him sometimes in the narrow alleys that run behind the convenience stores and bike shops of the first floor, which drip with water from laundry hung in the top stories. In some capsule settlements, the stacks of capsules go up so high, on the ground you can’t see the sun. They say that each walled slum is actually hundreds of smaller capsule tenements, but that they have been built so closely together that they became one thing.

I whisper Happiness’s name, and try to lure him back to me with my own dinners, but he growls and won’t come. I sit on my bed inside the yellow plastic walls of my capsule alone with the electric fan directed at my face and eat canned pineapple because it is the only thing I can afford after paying the water bribe.

Feng Guniang had been a symbol for the dreamy helplessness of the Pearl of the Orient. And now that she was dead, that innocence dispersed like a cloud of perfume on a sigh. Her death was a cry for something to be done. I just didn’t know what to do.

The Boss hires eight new de-ribbed dancers at The Green Dream. Whereas I used to be the youngest and least experienced, and Feng Guniang used to be the eldest, I stay through so many seasons that I become the protector of the new girls. I am hardened by the cruel Shanghai that waits outside the back door of The Green Dream, but I’m not changed by it.

It is at that time the girls start dying. Someone is stalking them, killing them in terrifying ways. As the oldest and the most unsentimental, I have to take responsibility.

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“This is not the first time there have been serial killers on Jiameng Street,” the Boss tells me, reclining on his velvet lounge chair with his opium pipe, his newly shined leather shoe crossed over his knee. One of his mistresses waxed his mustache this morning, and it curls at the ends like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.

I stand with Lizi and Xiao Lian behind me. My hair is brushed into a chignon on top of my head, and I’m wearing a simple cream-colored qipao with light blue embroidered flowers. I’ve taken to dressing plainly offstage because in my mind, glamour was always Feng Guniang’s right. “Can’t you do something about it?”

“What do you want me to do?” he asks, taking a puff on the pipe. The advertisement board in his forehead flickers with lazy images, a video feed of his wife reading a magazine, a fat baby with peachy cheeks sleeping in a crib behind her. “Walk each of you home to your slum towers one by one? Hunt the killer down with my bare hands? Call the police, if you want. There’s nothing I can do. Hundreds of people die every day in this city. Many die in worse ways.”

Lizi brings him a plate of salted peanuts, and he stuffs a handful in his mouth, chewing loudly. He won’t say any more on the topic, and after a while I have no choice but to accept this is all the help I will get from him.

The girls accept their fate without arguing. They go back to their tiny makeup tables in the backroom and brush their hair and powder their faces, holding handheld mirrors. The mirrors magnify their eyes, their cheeks, to ghastly proportions so that all across the room, these parts of girls’ faces are floating in their hands.

I watch for a while, leaning on the doorframe with my arms at my side.

There is a perverted killer waiting in the city night. Ruan’er died a fortnight ago. Someone poured acid down her face as she walked down the street in her six-inch black pumps. She had a wobbling, feline walk like a swoon, a signature red peony pinned in her sausage curls. I imagine the bony chill when she feels the shadows moving behind her, but nothing is there when she looks over her shoulder. She walks more quickly with that mounting terror growing wings in her chest like a trapped bird, and before she knows it, something cold hits her in the face, and there is agonizing, wretched pain as her skin melts between her fingers and pours away onto the pavement.

Ruan’er would’ve tried to scream, before she found she no longer had a mouth to scream with. In my imagination, the killer puts her face in a patterned silk bag with a drawstring. He pulls the strings tight and puts the bag inside his jacket before leaping onto the low roof of a mansion and vanishing into the foggy night.

Three nights later, it happens again to Wanyue, whom we find with her long legs splayed shamefully, her face missing. A girl’s head is hideous without its face, nothing but a pink mass of mangled flesh.

I do not know what the killer does with our faces. I imagine their eyes are wide in his drawstring bag, disoriented by the sudden darkness enveloping them. Or perhaps they are a jumbled glob, like sweet jellied tofu. He has a different drawstring bag for every face he steals, and he keeps them in rows inside his jacket, which he can display proudly if he chooses to, but doesn’t. Every three nights, he follows one of us home after the Boss closes the Green Dream at four in the morning. There are other girls missing all across the city. I don’t know who they are, but I imagine that no one is looking for them either.

I go down to the deepest level of the slums, where sunlight never touches the ground, and the water from last season’s rain still drips from above. Nobody walks here because there are rats and murders, but the water pump is located in this part of the slum, guarded by gangsters carrying rifles, their waist pouches overflowing with money from the protection fee.

The higher-ranking members of the Triads have pulled out a red plastic table with low stools and are playing a game of dice. The glowing eyes of alley cats peer out from between their legs and from behind sacks of rice like pairs of jewels.

“Please,” I say to Fat Tiger, who is the leader of the Three Fists. “The de-ribbed dancers of the Green Dream humbly beg for your assistance in a matter that troubles us.”

He grunts without looking up from his game.

“There is a serial killer, who melts our faces with acid.”

I wait, while the gangsters roll another round. They make an exaggerated show of laughter and pat the table in mirth.

Finally, when Fat Tiger realizes I will not go away, he leans into the light to see me better. “And you want my help? For all you know, I might be the serial killer.” He throws his head back and roars.

But I know that Fat Tiger is not the serial killer.

“You have liquefier guns, with Chaozhou lasers. Please help us.”

Fat Tiger’s sleepy eyes widen. “I have liquefier guns, do I? Well, if I do, each one cost me a hefty sum you couldn’t sell your life to pay for. What do I owe you to waste one in your hands?”

I curtsy ironically. “We help you pass the nights away when you are lonely and in need of company. We dance for you, and mix you the finest cocktails, and entertain you with our acts of contortion.”

He studies my mien, and I know that he is looking for signs of fear, but I’m not afraid of him. Fat Tiger is a bully, but he is as much a part of our walled slum as I am. “You would kill a man?”

“The police wouldn’t care if I turned him in alive.”

So he tries again. “A young lady like you believes that murder will bring justice?”

“I am only angry, and I don’t wish to hide it anymore.”

A door bangs open somewhere, and a heavy-boned woman in an apron patterned with rainbow snails hobbles out, carrying a pot of stewed pork and potato. My mouth waters at the hot steam that wafts through the alley. The cats begin meowing, and more eyes appear in the darkness, drawing closer to the table.

The woman is Fat Tiger’s wife, and she wears a flowery dress under the apron. Underneath her dress, her arms are thick pythons; a lopsided mountain of sea-green curlers is arranged atop her head. “Stop bullying the girl,” she tells Fat Tiger, and lands a hard slap across his ear. “Give her what she wants so we can have our dinner.”

Fat Tiger cuffs her hand away and calls her annoying. The other men lower their heads and pretend not to see, as the couple erupts into a slapping match. Only I watch, as she pinches his ear between her fingers and twists, while he yowls and throws jabs at the jiggling flab of her upper arm. Finally, having had enough, Fat Tiger’s wife shambles into a corner, calling him a bastard turtle’s egg, and lights a cigarette.

Fat Tiger grumbles under his breath and collapses back on his little red stool.

After a while, he snorts. “Give her a gun then, and pray she doesn’t blast her own throat out.”

At night, I shiver as I lie awake with the gun beside me on the cot in my three-by-six, listening to the water that drips continuously from above, through all the uneven levels of the slum city, toward the alleys below. A blue light pulses on the flank of the gun, indicating the laser is active, and I know that if I pull the trigger, a nullifying beam of heat will eradicate whatever I choose as my target. It is hard to miss with a liquefier gun. That’s how Fat Tiger’s goons have beaten every other gang in the city.

Still, I don’t sleep. I blink at the liquefier gun, imaging myself in an alley with the serial killer, the weapon hoisted on my shoulder. I can’t imagine how I would find him, what we would say to each other. Am I supposed to bid him farewell, if he doesn’t kill me first? What is life, if death comes so easily?

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I see the faces for sale the next day, in a boutique shop on Avenue Charles de Montigny in the French Concession. Ruan’er’s beautiful face, mounted on a pink doily, her almond eyes still with dark eye shadow on their lids, staring blankly outside the window of the shop.

The shopkeeper steps out from behind the shelves, which are filled with girls’ faces, all set in lace and held up by dainty brass tacks. She has been sweeping dirt from the aisles.

“May I help you?” she asks, and her voice is sweet like icing on cupcakes. She wears a floor-length dress made of navy chiffon that swirls like a tornado at her feet. I cannot tell what her ethnicity is, but it’s likely a mix of Chinese and European, her hair swept into a tight bun atop her head.

“Who buys the faces?” I ask her.

“Collectors,” she answers, with a wide sweep of her arm. “Appreciators, connoisseurs in the art of incorporeity. Every face is unique, you know.”

I tiptoe down the aisles of faces, afraid to make any sudden movements lest I startle the faces. But of course they do not move, or blink. They are just girls’ faces. Even in death, they are quiet and unmoving, pretending that nothing is wrong.

“The other day, a man came in, looking to buy a face. He offered a gorgeous sum,” the shopkeeper continues from the other side of the aisle. I see her from between the pale cheekbones of the faces, leaning on her broom. I find Wanyue’s face on another shelf, her shining red lips still parted with her last breath.

“Which face did he buy?” I ask the shopkeeper.

“One that has not been collected yet,” she replies, joining me in the aisle, and brushes her finger gently along Wanyue’s cheek to remove a thread. “But this face is different. This face is a jewel in the New Orient, that shines like the North Star, brutal and bold with eyes made from rubies, apart from all the other faces in New China. This is a face of The Tigress Awoken.”

Her voice rises to a ringing crescendo, which reverberates like tin in the sunny afternoon daintiness of the boutique shop. I cover my ears but it won’t stop, and when I stare into the shopkeeper’s face, her smile looks like it has been carved there with a knife. Suddenly, I am afraid.

I run out of the shop, the bell on its door jingling behind me, and run down Avenue Charles de Montigny, which is just an ordinary Shanghai street, full of bobbing parasols fighting for room on the sidewalk and long trench coats that sweep the pavement, and stare at the large billboards about the New Chinese Dream fixed on the sides of red mansion skyscrapers that wobble into the sky like endless pagodas. The women on the street carry stiff laminated paper bags full of their noonday shopping. Some are eating fruit off sticks, candied hawthorn berries and mandarin slices.

I drop to the ground and hold my knees against my chest. I want nothing more than to be consumed by the mobs of people who walk with their heads down, heading for their afternoon high in the opium dens on Jiameng Street. I think about the gun lying in my capsule, waiting for me to find the boldness to fire that one shot. If I could, I would tie the sun to the sky so that night would never have to come. Look at me! I scream at the people who walk past, but we are all invisible to each other.

I don’t know where I am safer, outside or inside—or if safety exists anymore.

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A few nights later, it is the fourteenth day of the seventh lunar month, the Ghost Festival. Plates of food have been left on the street for the ghosts to eat, and several of the girls are burning ghost money to appease the dead spirits that wander back from hell on this day to visit their families. The Green Dream is alive with gossip and good cheer, fragrant smoke wafting through the establishment; the Boss has ordered special delicacies and wine to be brought to each table free of charge.

The first row of seats in front of the stage is left intentionally empty for the ghosts. It is a strange experience, dancing for an audience that is not there. Real ghosts do not come to see the show. All of that is superstition; humans cannot do anything to absolve a ghost’s pain.

As I dance, folding my body in the alien forms permitted by my de-ribbed waist, I glance over to the front right corner of the audience as I am accustomed to doing. I am looking for Feng Guniang’s German businessman.

Tonight I am surprised to see he has brought a new lover, an artist from Guangdong. She is older than Feng Guniang, and wears a wide-brimmed hat with a long green feather. Unlike Feng Guniang, she has made an effort to preserve her dignity by refusing to sit in her German lover’s lap.

I hate her, although she’s done nothing wrong, and I don’t even know who she is. I hate the German lover as well—he has not gone to see Feng Guniang once since her suicide. You can sleep with a ghost, you know. You can hold it in your arms and whisper things in its ear all the same. I want to ask him why he hasn’t done this.

I curtsy my finish to a round of applause. Afterward, when it is Xiao Lian’s turn to dance, I go to see Feng Guniang, whom I myself have neglected for a fortnight, ever since the serial killer made his presence known. It is her festival, after all.

I hear her singing in the roofed corridor over the pond, by the Pavilion of Listening to Billows. There are red paper lanterns floating in the water, meant to guide the ghosts back to hell. The lanterns form a pretty parade down the pond, attracting dragonflies, although I am not sure if the dragonflies are real or mechanical. Feng Guniang is crying on a marble bench in the corridor.

“Xiao You,” she whispers, trying to put her hand my cheek, and failing as always. “Why haven’t you come to see me?”

Something has changed about her. Her body has, if anything, grown colder and more solid, leaning more toward this world than the one she must leave it for.

I sit next to her, listening to the swish of the projected willows. I take the top off a bamboo cage filled with hot stuffed jujubes, which I have brought to her as an offering. She eats the food with her fingers and begins singing again. The goldfish somersault in the pond, creating satisfying splashes. I take my shoes off and dip my toes in the water.

We sit like that for a while, surrounded by the illusions of a peaceful garden.

Feng Guniang stops singing. “Mathias has a new lover.”

I freeze, unsure how to answer. “How did you know about that?”

“I go to the Green Dream a lot,” she replies. “I dance on the stage when none of you are looking. I try to touch him but he can’t feel me.”

“Why don’t you kill him?” I ask her. “Ghosts can kill people, can’t they?”

Feng Guniang shakes her head tearfully, takes another bite of the stuffed jujube. “They can,” she whispers, “but I won’t.”

I feel it again, the empty space in her chest that is filled with her silent bitterness. There is a space like that in everyone’s heart in New China. It has caused all this. I want to ask her why she lets him do this to her.

“Feng Guniang, you must’ve seen the serial killer. What does he look like? Where is he?”

She shakes her head. “He’ll kill you if you go after him.”

“Fat Tiger gave me a gun.” I’ve brought the gun. I lay it on my lap and show it to her. “Please, Feng Guniang. You’re the only one who can help me. I have to stop this.”

“Are you going to leave if I tell you? Don’t leave me. I’m so alone here. He has forgotten all about me. Everyone has, except you.”

“I’ll come back,” I promise her. “When have I ever broken a promise to you? I’ll bring you sweet-braised ribs next time, cooked so the meat falls off in your mouth. But let me do this for our sisters.”

She is silent for a long time. The parade of paper lanterns passes us, bobbing towards the Bridge of Ethereal Butterflies, where they pass single file under the arch. I wonder if they are really headed for hell, or if they’ll only find shore in the morning. Finally, she bows her head. “He lives in a longtang called Magpie Alley, not far from the Green Dream.”

I begin to pack the empty bamboo cage, piling the last jujubes into a napkin so Feng Guniang can eat them after I’m gone.

Feng Guniang stands and takes my face in both her hands. This time I feel her touch, clammy and transparent, and I shudder. She is becoming more solid. No, I want to tell her. You must leave this world, not stay in it. “Promise to be careful,” she whispers to me.

I squeeze her hand and promise.

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On the unluckiest night of the year, when the streets float with the ashes of ghost money and papier-mâché animals burn like effigies in hell, I hunt down the serial killer.

Magpie Alley is an ordinary alley, stained, flowery women’s underwear drying on laundry lines and fat coils of sausage hanging on tin wires in the windows. A dog that looks like Happiness lies in the corner behind the Dumpster with his paws extended in front of him, busy chewing a bone.

I look for the serial killer’s window. I imagine it must have the silk drawstring bags hanging in it, arranged like perfume sachets stuffed with aromatic herbs on a girl’s dresser. I don’t imagine he is the type of serial killer who decorates his walls with butcher knives or torture contraptions. His lust for killing rises from a more literary desire. The bags may have lucky patterns sewn on them to describe the faces he has stolen—peonies or lotuses for femininity, a bat for happiness, a double butterfly for love. Murder can be art too, as long as it is done carefully enough.

But when I find his window, which I was fated to eventually, there are no drawstring bags in it.

Instead his window is hung with bronze mirrors that have a water caltrop embossed on the back, the kind of mirrors ladies used for makeup during the real Ming Dynasty. Some of the mirrors face front, out the window, and others face back. Many people in New China mistake the caltrop for a grinning skull and thus consider the mirrors unlucky, but they are overlooking the abstract symbolism behind the original caltrop mirrors, which was that caltrops grow in water, and water does not lie.

I hoist the liquefier gun over my shoulder by its strap and begin to pull myself up by the kudzu binding the walls.

“A lot can be said about a window,” the serial killer tells me when I reach the top, sliding the pane open for me to climb in. “Some say the most precious window of the world is the eyes, which are not really a window but a mirror.”

He regards me calmly through a colorfully painted dixi mask, whose expression is the hardest of all Chinese masks to decipher because it is expressionless. In it I cannot find a man, or a god, or a ghost. Its eyes are closed.

I smooth my qipao back over my knees, and level the liquefier gun at his heart. At this distance, it is impossible to miss. He smiles—I can tell by the skin on his neck and chin, crinkling. “Not everyone in this city pretends to sleep,” I tell him, and I press my finger down on the trigger.

A stream of blue light leaves the gun, and he raises his hands to shield himself. But the beam does not pass through him. I only have a heart’s beat to feel shock before I see that he has held up a caltrop mirror, which deflects the beam back the way it came.

They say that real killers are incapable of feeling fear, that they throw their heads back in the face of death and laugh as he is doing now. Well, I learn that I must not be a real killer as that blue light comes dashing back to me, and I stumble back from it in vain. It doesn’t matter if I was the one who fought back. In the end I am the same as all the others who did nothing. What was the difference to be made, between silence and screaming, acceptance and delusion, if it amounted to nothing? I, too, am helpless.

The beam of light splashes me in the face like water, and I don’t have time to scream. The sensation of a thousand nails rakes across my face, as if my skin is nothing but papier-mâché like the animals we sacrifice for the Ghost Festival, and beneath it is fire that bursts forth and burns my body to ash. I sink to my knees on the serial killer’s carpet, weeping as he pries my hands off my face and takes it from me—not holding it with a drawstring bag, but with his bare hands.

“Do you really think I am the worst killer in Shanghai?” he asks me quietly, holding my folded, melted face in the cup of his hands. “Or was it your desire to change something that cannot be changed that drove you here and killed you?”

He seals my face in a glass jar painted with swans that is plugged at the top with a corkwood screw. “Farewell,” he says to me, and he steals quietly out the window.

I count my breaths in the shadow he has left, and I begin to wonder if it was a delusion to think a girl missing four of her ribs is enough to make a difference in a smarter, crueler world.

But I am not dead.

He has left my eyes in my face and spared my life. I grab one of the many caltrop mirrors and turn its face to me. What stares back is an amalgam of mangled flesh and ugliness where skin used to be that makes me howl, and the worst part is that I can see it all. I dig my fingers into my eyes to make sure they are real. He didn’t take my eyes. Why didn’t he take my eyes?

Then I remember a sentence that was spoken to me, in a voice sweeter than cupcake icing.

This face is a jewel in the New Orient, that shines like the North Star, brutal and bold with eyes made from rubies, apart from all the other faces in New China.

My face is the face of The Tigress Awoken.

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“Please. I want to buy that face, for whatever price you name. It’s my face.” I am a beggar on the floor of the boutique, grappling at the shopkeeper’s hands and dress.

The shopkeeper looks down upon me from atop her long neck and names a sum taller than the sky needle in the Bund. She knows I cannot pay.

“Please let me have it for a little less,” I beg her.

She shakes me off her leg as if I’m a leper.

“But you can’t afford the price I have named.”

I crawl to the shelf where my face sits on a pink doily, watching the sunset outside. It has forgotten all about me, fever replaced by a stunned nothingness. Inset where my eyes should’ve been are two bright rubies. I wish it would scream for me, but it is just a face.

“No, no, no,” I say to the shopkeeper, grabbing her hand. “No, you can’t take my face away from me. It’s mine. You can’t do this.”

“It was sold to me. It is mine by right now.”

I scream and claw at her, but it is no use. She drags me by the hair down the aisles, through all the faces that stare without blinking, and deposits me outside on the sidewalk. “Leave my shop,” she says as she pulls the blinds shut, “or I will call the police.”

She pulls the door shut and locks it from the inside.

“Help me,” I whisper to my face through the glass of the window, but it ignores me. Perhaps it is angry. I have failed it.

I feel naked and defenseless. They are disassembling my body bone by bone, feeding it to the hungry city that is always looking for victims, always waiting to take advantage of those who are trying to change it. I begin to look for my ribs in the cemeteries of Jiameng Street, which are just behind the opium dens, far enough that you can’t see them past the red mansions built to hide them. I thought my ribs might be buried in a box, nestled under a grave or an ornamental angel. I dig holes under the back patio of the Green Dream until the Boss chases me away with a broom.

He screams when he sees me without my face, and drops the broom.

“Never come back,” he tells me, as if I am a monster and not his once-prized dancer. “What are you doing in my establishment? Get out!”

I flee from the opium dens I have called my home, with no cheeks for my tears to roll down, to Yuyuan Garden, where the illusions of bamboo groves and sponge rocks stand guard over empty pavilions. A howl rises from the Pavilion of Listening to Billows.

It’s Feng Guniang, who floats on her back in the pond.

She is no longer wearing her red dress. She is naked, her white body smooth as a statue. Her eyes are more sunken, dark holes with no bottom that bore into the pits of her skull. Her hair is gone, in its place a naked pallet of ridged white bone.

She swims to me and rises out of the emerald-colored water like the Goddess of Mercy. I wade into the shallows to meet her, mechanical goldfish darting away from my thighs in a panicked frenzy, and fall into her arms.

Jian,” she whispers in my ear.

“What are you talking about? What happened to your dress?”

“When a person dies, they become a ghost. When a ghost dies, they become a jian.”

She holds her arms up for me to see. Ugly black scars mar her wrists. Black blood drips continuously from them, into the water.

I look down at the scars, unsure what to make of them. “You killed yourself again?”

“I cut myself open and served my heart to him on a platter, tonight at the Green Dream. But he didn’t eat it. He wanted to eat rose cake pastries, imported from Yunnan. I put my heart back, and in case that didn’t kill me, I cut my wrists on his broken teacup. He leaned over to kiss her and shattered it.”

I sob into her solid shoulder. Feng Guniang doesn’t shiver.

“You have changed, Xiao You,” she says, brushing a strand of hair off what’s left of my skull. Her fingers are wet and clammy. They smell like the river. “I feel the anger inside you. It rises like a fire clawing at the inside of your ribs, trying to get out of you. It begins in the space where your eleventh and twelfth ribs used to be.”

I lift my face from her neck. “I feel the anger inside you,” I tell her. “It is empty and silent, and cruel like an iron weight, and it sinks inside you, making an abyss beside your heart that grows deeper with every breath you take. It too begins in the space where your eleventh and twelfth ribs used to be.”

We stand in the water, the ghost and I, our arms wrapped around each other.

“You were right,” I admit. “I shouldn’t have gone after him. It wasn’t enough.”

She shakes her head and regards me sadly. “Have my face,” she says. “Or at least what’s left of it. I killed myself twice and I only lost more. I see now that the steps I have taken are useless.”

I remember what the shopkeeper said. Each face is unique, and bears its own story. Feng Guniang’s is written with sorrow and weakness, but within it is an ethereal beauty that speaks of times passed away. If only we had been born in another era, where the world was not so cruel, she might have lived.

No,” I tell her. “Your face is beautiful. You keep it.”

Feng Guniang takes a step back from me, and I realize that her skin has become airy and light, like mist. I cannot feel her anymore.

“Neither of us won, Xiao You, but you still have hope. You haven’t failed, you know. He took your face, but you don’t need one.”

Another tear rolls from my eye and drops straight to the water with no cheek to catch it. “Not even the Boss can look upon me anymore.”

“Where’s my dress?” Feng Guniang says, turning around in the water. “Let me make a mask for you—a new face that you can show off to the world.”

She makes the mask for me from her qipao, which she had draped over the Bridge of Ethereal Butterflies. The parade of paper lanterns from the night before finds their way back to us and bobs around her in a circle of light as she sews. They have been waiting for her, hiding under the bridge during the brief summer showers and peaking out every hour to see if the sun had returned to our grey sky.

There is no power in anger, only loneliness. Feng Guniang and I used to hold each other on the stage of the Green Dream, while the servants waved colored lanterns, and somersault over each other. Each time I would feel the fluttering of her heart when my hand brushed her chest, and I would know she was looking at her German lover. She never cried for help in my arms, but neither did I.

In the end it is not anger that will save us. It is whatever comes after.

Finally, she releases me and wades back into the water. “There,” she says to me, standing back to admire her handiwork. “It’s a beautiful mask. I wish I had one like that while I was alive. I would wear it every day.”

And she smiles. Feng Guniang’s smile is disarming, even when she is an eyeless jian.

“Where will you go?” I ask her.

“I don’t know,” she replies. “There are other worlds that call for me, where I will face whatever comes. But you must go on living, Xiao You. I always depended on you to save me, but you’re the one who can save everyone.”

The parade of paper lanterns forms a neat line for Feng Guniang to follow. She wades back into the water, her arms making wide ripples.

“You must go on fighting, Xiao You. Remember that.”

She retreats further into the water, while I call after her not to leave me. Afterward, I sob for a while under the projected willows waving their branches over my head. Willow leaves float down and stick to my hair. In the distance, light and chatter from the opium dens forms a smoggy halo over Jiameng Street. The Ming-style skyscrapers of the Bund sleep quietly, their red exteriors darkened in twilight.

I stand waist-deep in the water, wearing my new red mask, watching all of it drift further from me, but then the gentle waves pull it back. The moon casts its billowing reflection on the pond, always just out of reach.

There is a city out there named Shanghai, a city with ghosts and shops that have women’s faces, neon lights and opium dens, my enemy and my home. It is a city sinking beneath the weight of its own grandeur, but I will pull it back piece by piece, until it is whole again. One day, Happiness will come back so I may clean the lice from behind his ears. I’ll use my earnings from the Green Dream to buy canned eel, which used to be his favorite food. Maybe we’ll move to a bigger capsule, one with a TV for us to watch English cartoons on.

Next year, when Feng Guniang comes back on the Ghost Festival, accompanied by her entourage of red paper lanterns, I’ll bring her sweet-braised ribs as promised. I’ll even bring her a plum blossom pressed between the pages of a magazine, so that it never withers. Plum blossoms are the first to bloom every year in Shanghai. They bloom in winter.

One day, Shanghai, I will stand in your streets without feeling fear.

 march-endof

JessicaBioPicJessica May Lin recently returned to the San Francisco Bay Area after moonlighting as a nightclub pole dancer for a year in Beijing, China, and is now completing her last year at UC Berkeley. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in Chiral Mad 3, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and others. Her nonfiction stories have been published in the Chinese-language edition of the New York Times. Visit her website at jessicamaylin.com.

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Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg

palingenesis-title

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.”

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.

Still.

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.

palin03

end-of-story-nov

megan

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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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.

To Sleep In the Dust of the Earth, by Kristi DeMeester

Lea and I met Beth when we were thirteen. That was the year Lea had legs that wouldn’t fill out her shorts. The year I started sneaking Marlboro Lights from my mother’s purse to share with Lea in the back corner of Benjamin Harper’s abandoned lot.

“He was going to build on it. A house for his wife. But she died, and he just…” Lea made a fluttering motion with her fingers, scattered the smoke streaming from her lips.

“Jesus. We’ve only heard the story about a million times. Give it a rest.”

“I just think it’s sad is all. You don’t have to be such a bitch about it, Willa,” Lea said and flicked her butt into the grass.

There were rumors that the lot was haunted. Little kids would dare each other to sneak out there at night. Sit right where the front door should have gone and stay until morning. For the older kids, it was a place to do all of the things our parents said we shouldn’t. Even still, we hung at the periphery of the land, far from the heart of the house Harper would have built.

“You don’t feel something when we come out here? It’s so quiet. My hair gets all prickly,” Lea said.

“Like something big is about to happen. Like right before a door opens. When you don’t know who’s on the other side.” She looked somewhere just over my shoulder.

“Someone’s here,” she said and let out a deep groan. Her eyes fluttered into her skull, and she began to twitch, her fingers going rigid, and her back arching.

“Stop it,” I said, and she let out two more guttural grunts before dissolving into giggles.

“Seriously, Lea. It’s not fucking funny,” I said and pushed her. She tumbled backward, and then, for what couldn’t have been more than two maybe three seconds, I couldn’t see her. Dark hair and eyes caught in the act of falling suddenly vanished among grass grown tall.

Must have been a trick of the afternoon sunlight because there she was again, those legs in the dirt and a smile streaked across her face.

“You asked for it,” she said and brushed her hands over her thighs. “Shit. SHIT. Godammit, Willa,” she said, her fingers spread wide.

“Nope. Not falling for it again.”

“No. My ring. My mom’s aquamarine ring. It’s gone. She’ll kill me.”

“It must have fallen off when you fell. Hold on. We’ll find it.”

dust1Later, Lea and I would chew Klonopin and tell each other that there was nothing strange about the day Beth stumbled into our lives. We were just two girls kneeling in the grass, hands outstretched. We must have felt her. Positions of supplication. Must have noticed the moment the sky went darker and the birds fell silent. I don’t think we ever got up from that place. Not really. I think there will always be the two of us seeking something that will not be found.

“There’s a hole here,” Lea said, and I peered over her shoulder.

“Looks like an animal den or something.”

“I think I see it,” she said and poked her fingers into the entrance.

“Don’t just shove your hand in there! It could be a snake hole. Don’t you pay any attention in school?”

“Doesn’t matter any way. Hand’s too big. Help me find something to hook it. A long stick.”

We have different memories of the first time we heard Beth’s voice. For me, Beth sounded like someone trying very hard to not be heard. A quiet rush of words that she hoped would fall from her lips and into the dirt. Lea said that Beth’s voice sounded like water. Something that slipped into your head and sloshed around so that you couldn’t get it out no matter how hard you tried.

“I can get your ring for you.” Beth looked whitewashed. Skin the color of oatmeal. A beige jumper that brushed a pair of knobby knees over a white t-shirt and a pair of crummy, knock off Keds. The kind of girl you see but don’t spend too long looking at.

Lea turned to me and rolled her eyes. “I can’t deal with this weirdo right now. My mother is going to hit the fucking roof. I’m not even supposed to touch the damn thing.”

“I don’t think we need your help,” I said and turned my back to her. Message sent loud and clear.

“I’m Beth. I just moved here,” she said, and Lea muttered something under her breath about being a homing beacon for idiots.

“Really. I can,” Beth said and pushed her way between us.

“Is she fucking serious?” Lea said, but Beth only smiled and thrust her hand inside the hole.

“No way your hand is that small,” Lea said.

“Maybe she has baby hands or something,” I said.

Even now, I wonder if it was the lot acting on Beth. Leaking into her like venom into blood. Most of the time, I think that it was Beth all along. That the darkness we came to know was already a part of her. That she released herself into that place. Into us.

I think I’m still choking on her.

When Beth handed the ring to Lea, the gem cast glittering flecks across Lea’s cheeks. She stood before us, head bowed, while Lea stuck the ring in her mouth to suck off the grit.

“Thanks. Really. You have no idea the shit storm that was coming my way. Your hands must be fucking tiny,” Lea said once the ring was safely back on her finger.

“I’m Beth,” she said again.

We should have never told her our names. Sometimes, things are meant to be lost. There are things you aren’t supposed to go looking for.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.

We were seventeen, full of a stolen box of Franzia White Zin, lungs heavy with smoke. Our lips and tongues and teeth pressed against the mouths of boys who told us they were students at GSU but were actually seniors at the other high school. It was almost funny how stupid they thought we were, but they were warm, and we were cold, and there were empty places in the world that were filled with the things we had lost.

Always, Beth was in the background. Hovering behind us while we tested the waters of adulthood. Always watching with her quiet, pale smile. For four years she’d been with us. We didn’t tell her to leave.

Even after all that time, we didn’t know much about her. She didn’t answer most of our questions when we asked them. There were the things that she told us: that her father moved the two of them here after her mother died; that he stood outside of her bedroom at night–to be sure she was breathing; that her favorite color was yellow. Sunshine yellow. The color of joy.

There were the things that she did not tell us: why we weren’t allowed to come into her house; why she never spoke of her father after the first time she told us about him; why we never saw him — not at school to pick her up, not at the grocery store, not at PTSA meetings or driving his car or the hundreds of other ways you’ll see someone’s father; why she had scratch marks on the inside of her thighs.

Eventually, we stopped asking questions, and Beth faded into the background of our lives until we needed her.

During those four years, Beth found all of the things we lost: my favorite lipstick that I thought was in the bottom of my purse; a safety pin earring Lea’s first boyfriend gave her before she let him feel her up for the first time; a pair of yellow sunglasses I bought with my babysitting money. Nothing important. Nothing that we couldn’t live without, but it was amusing. Lea and I had something that set us apart from everyone else. It made us different. Interesting.

We would end up at the empty lot, and Beth would sit next to the hole and presto, just like magic, whatever item we’d been searching for would emerge clutched in her fist.

“She’s stealing that shit. Trying to convince us she’s special,” Lea said after the second time.

“I don’t think so. She’s never excited when she finds something. Or proud of herself. If anything, she looks ashamed. Like she’s just done something dirty.”

dust2“Uh. Yeah. She stole our stuff.”

We hid random things in secret places: in shoe boxes in the backs of our closets, stuffed down garbage disposals, thrown into the woods on our way to school, eyes closed. We didn’t tell each other where they were, but when we told Beth about what we had lost, she would lead us to the lot, put her hand in the hole, and pull out each and every trinket.

I’m not sure if she knew that we were using her. If she understood that was the only reason we let her hang around. Because she could find lost things and bring them home again like our own personal magic trick.

We liked to think that we were doing her a favor. That without us, she’d languish in social hell. No friends. No one to talk to. We adopted her because it amused us. We curled her hair to see if we could, put coral lipstick and liquid eyeliner on her as if she were a doll, and then gave her the crumbs of our affection. Still, she smiled at us and took us down to the lot when we had something that needed finding.

“Don’t ask Beth to come. She gives me the creeps when we have boys with us. The way she sits there and stares. Like she’s never seen a pair of tits before,” Lea said.

“Maybe don’t pull your tits out then,” I said, and she flipped me the bird.

Lea and I were in love with the feel of warm hands against the small of our backs and the musty scent of Acqua Di Gio, and the boys who had lied to us could give us both. We were going to meet them down at the lot.

I can’t remember the boys’ names — they were generic, Chris or Mark or James. What I do remember is a swoop of strawberry blonde hair, freckles, green eyes. Hands in my hair and on my waist. Laughter. Someone brought a radio and Pearl Jam was singing in the background about last kisses. Everything moving in slow motion, like a dream. Beth somewhere in the background, humming along.

When the other boy, Lea’s boy, started screaming, I thought I had fallen asleep, slipped into the half shadow world of nightmare. Beth stood beside him, her arms cradling something I couldn’t see, and the boy screamed again.

“What the fuck? What the fuck?” He scrambled backwards.

“I’m sorry,” Beth said and extended her arms outward, offered him whatever she held.

“Please. I thought I could do it. I could feel him. Down there in the dark,” Beth said, and the boy recoiled.

“Get her the fuck away from me,” he said, but no one moved.

“Beth,” Lea said and reached out for her, but she turned away, clutched the thing in her arms to her chest.

“I’m sorry. I thought I could bring him back for you. You miss him so much. I can feel it,” she said, and I saw what she carried. The rotting body of a small, white dog rested in her arms. Eyes glassed over like two dark marbles.

If the boys ran, I don’t remember. There was only Beth, sobbing, her fingers tangled in the dog’s white fur. It took two hours to get her to let go of it, to convince her to bury it under a pile of dead leaves, and get her on her feet.

We took her home; walked under moonlight that turned Beth’s hair silver, the streaks of mud on her fingers into ink. I don’t ever remember her as beautiful, but that night, her beauty was a terrible thing.

“What did you do?” I said when we got to her porch. Her eyes were translucent. It was like looking through glass into something with no bottom.

“Father made me a door,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s there. Behind the door. But I can’t open it completely. Not yet,” Beth said and disappeared into the gloom of the house.

That night I dreamed of Beth. She crawled out from between my legs, her fingernails digging against my thighs.

I saw Beth’s father on my eighteenth birthday. There was a party. Champagne in plastic cups. Dancing with Lea while Shirley Manson screamed something I couldn’t quite make out. Beth smiling and shaking her head when my mother offered her some champagne.

We never talked about the night with the dog. That year, when something went missing, Lea and I let it go. Didn’t wonder about where it had gone or tear apart our rooms searching. The lot and the things we did there faded into the myths of our childhood.

I was going to New Orleans for school that fall. Lea was headed to Atlanta to chase a bass player in a shitty rock band. “He’s really good, Willa. They’re going to make it. You’ll see.”

Beth was going to stay home. Take care of her father.

“He’s sick,” she said, but she never told us with what. Only that she had to help him. The idea of her in that house, alone with her father — a man I’d never seen — nauseated me.

“You need to be out. On your own. You know, live,” I told her. The way she smiled at me — lips chewed open and bleeding — made my skin itch.

In three weeks, I’d be far away from all of it: from Beth, from the lot, from all the lost things she had found. From the nightmares that were coming more and more frequently. From the new fear curling hard and sharp in my belly.

Lea went home early. Her rock and roll boy had told her that he might drop by later. She wanted to be sure she shaved her legs in case he did.

dust3One by one, the partygoers stumbled out into the night, followed the moon back to their beds, until there was only Beth and me.

“Walk me home?” she asked.

I don’t remember getting up to leave, my feet falling into the familiar path to Beth’s house. Right onto Lakeshire, left on Hope Circle, left again onto Cumberland Way. We were standing on her porch, when I realized that I had dropped out for a bit. I dismissed the lost time as being more than a little drunk.

Beth turned to me, took my hand, and opened her front door.

“Come inside,” she said, and I hesitated, my foot brushing against the threshold. Warm air pressed against my face, heavy with something that smelled like yeast, like bread baking.

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

“It’s okay.” Her hand was hot over mine, and she pulled me inside.

“I want to show you something.”

The door closed.

“I want you to meet my father. He’ll be so happy to see you again. It’s been so long,” she said, and I wanted to tell her she was mistaken, that I had never met her father, but my tongue was heavy and her hand pulled me into the dark.

“This way.”

She led me into a hallway. Pictures lined the walls. A series of Beth at various ages, her hands and arms covered in dirt as she offered them to whomever stood behind the camera. In some she was smiling, her teeth long and wolfish. In others, she looked down, her hair covering her face.

“We’ll go through the door. And then everything will be fine. Like it was before. Before everything was lost.”

Beneath our feet, the carpet had given way to hard packed dirt, the walls covered with moss. A man stood at the end of the hallway facing a door, his back to us. Dark hair streaked with silver, clipped short. A white shirt tucked into jeans.

“This is my father,” she said, dropping my hand. The man turned, bending to place a kiss on his daughter’s lips. When she opened her mouth to him, I tried to turn away, tried not to hear Beth moan, but my arms felt heavy and would not move to cover my ears.

Beth paused before the door, her hand pressed against the wood.

“You always were my favorite, Willa. Will you help us? Will you help me find something that we lost?” Beth opened the door.

The doorway opened into Harper’s old lot. We were inside the hole, the one where Beth found lost things, looking out and up into the night sky. No moon. No stars. Only the sound of something vast moving just beyond the hole. Something dragging itself along dirt paths.

“He made me a door. And I went searching. Hands seeking in the dark. Looking for what we lost. It took a long time, but I found her. She was so small. So quiet. Curled up like a cat at the bottom of a well,” Beth said, and her father took her hand.

My mouth tasted of blood, sweet and hot and full of iron.

“Who did you find?” I asked, but she didn’t answer.

Beth went down on her belly with her father behind her. They crawled up, up, up and through the hole and into the night, leaving me behind.

Whatever crawled along in the dirt laughed.

“Mother. We found you,” she said, and I closed my eyes.

We bury our dead in the ground. We tend to the seeds and water them with our tears. We wait and watch. Sometimes, what we find is beautiful. Other times, all of the hope we put inside the seed rots and decays. Then, we mourn all we have lost. The things we can never find. What we have thrown into the woods with our eyes closed.

The next morning, I woke up in my bed with no memory of how I got there and the fuzzy leftovers of a champagne headache. My thighs burned, as if someone had clawed their way out of me, but there were no scratches. No blood.

Three weeks later, I boarded an airplane for New Orleans. Neither I nor Lea heard from Beth after the night of the party.

Over the next three years, Lea and I drifted apart and came together with the strange consistency of childhood friends. We called each other when the men next to us were sleeping, and we whispered the lies that we had rehearsed, the fabricated stories we’d adopted to keep ourselves sane. If Lea had her own secrets to keep, I didn’t ask, and she never asked me either.

“I dream about her,” Lea said.

“Me, too.”

“I called her house once. About a year ago. A woman answered. Said that she was Beth’s mother, but her mother died. Didn’t she? I think about her, but everything blurs together, and I can’t be sure if what I’m remembering is real,” Lea said. We didn’t have to say that we were afraid.

Neither of us went back home. Our mothers begged us to visit, but we came up with reasons to stay away. Finals to study for. A new job that wouldn’t give us the time off. A cold that I just couldn’t shake. If Beth even still lived there, we didn’t know. We didn’t ask our mothers, and they never mentioned it. It was like she had never existed — a ghost.

Eventually, I convinced myself I had dreamed that night, down in the hole, with the stars so clear, but every couple of months, I would wake to the taste of dirt in my teeth and Beth’s voice in my ear, her nails digging into my thighs.

It took twenty years for me to come home.

I was twenty-seven when I met Vasily and fell in love with his dark hair and hard tongue that cut straight through words rather than bending around them. I was thirty-two when Terrin was born and learned how the knowing of love is a little like drowning.

Terrin was four when we lost him. An accident. Sun in the eyes of the driver behind us. Didn’t see the brake lights. No one’s fault.

Five months went by, and I could not move. Could not speak. Vasily packed his things. In the story I tell myself, he kissed me when he left.

dust4“Come home, Willa,” my mother said over the phone. She sounded like an old woman, and I thought of what it would be like to bury her. It would feel right. Not like the world had just slipped inside out.

“Did Beth move away?” I asked her, but I knew the answer.

“Who? Oh, Beth. I see her every now and then at the store with her mother and father. She takes care of them I think. Always was a strange girl.”

I went home and slept in my mother’s house. It was no longer mine. There was a bed that she kept, but the girl who had slept there was not me.

Lea came. Took a red eye in from Charleston. My mother let her into the bedroom, and Lea sat on the edge of the mattress, picked at a loose thread. Neither of us spoke, and she went away when the sun began to set, told me that she loved me, that she would be back.

I slept, and I dreamed of a little boy with dark hair like his father, a small hand curled in mine, the sound of his laughter. I waited. I spoke his name and hers into the silence.

It took nine days for Beth to come to me. I woke up to her crouched on the bed. Her feet were dirty, and she’d left dark streaks on the white quilt.

“Can you still find lost things?” I said. She took my hand, and I followed her out the door, down the streets I memorized as a girl and then followed when I was a teenager.

The lot had not changed. Broken bottles, cigarette butts, and candy wrappers still tangled in the grass. The ghosts of two girls and a third who came to them, who brought them nightmares. And somewhere in all of that, a door.

“There’s more than death in the ground, Willa,” she said and knelt down.

“Yes,” I said, and watched as she reached beneath the earth and pulled.

end-of-story-nov

demeesterKristi DeMeester lives, loves, and writes spooky, pretty things in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Three-Lobe Burning Eyes, Xynobis 2, Nightscript, Black Static, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 1, and others. She is currently at work on her first novel. You can find her on the web at http://kristidemeester.wix.com/kristi-demeester

 

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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.”

No.

Yes.

“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.

end-of-story-nov

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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