Tag Archives: ghosts

A July Story, K.L. Owens

Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.

The sky grew orange, pinkish blue, then muted violet and freckled with stars while Kitten enjoyed being outside. His nose was numb, his eyes watered small icicles whipped up by the wind, and his stomach gurgled, but Kitten kept his back to the house just as the house kept its back to the sea. How long had it been this time? Was there a town nearby? Would they have good things to eat?

Kitten dug a socked hand beneath his scarf, shoving at the coarse licks of hair that itched his neck. He’d yet to see a mirror. He removed one sock and blew on his fingers to keep them warm, dug under the scarf again, yanked. The hair could just be seen in the fading light. Gray now, perhaps even white, but still black near the tip. The wind snatched the hair from his fingers. Kitten didn’t watch it go. There never had been, never would be, anyone to care about his hair, and besides, had nature been allowed its usual way with him, Kitten’s hair would be like spider silk, lining the bottom of a pine box.

Gray hair led to golden hair, green eyes, and Kitten found himself thinking about Angelica Wilson, the young schoolteacher he’d fancied in his youth. Angelica was kind to Kitten on his fifteenth birthday, his last day in the world. She’d lent him the few coins he needed to purchase the bestiary he’d been eyeing on the bookseller’s cart, and she’d given his baby sister, Mousie, a sweet. The bestiary was like the scarf: one of the few items the house has let him keep. Kitten suspected it had something to do with them being gifts.

Kitten glanced back at the house. Angelica Wilson would be dead now. Like Mousie. Like Mum and Father and the mates who, on the afternoon of his fifteenth birthday, dared him to go inside the strange red house. For the first few decades, Kitten liked to imagine that Angelica had married one of his mates, that Mousie found herself an upstanding young man and borne children of her own. He would pretend a child he passed in a July street was his nephew or niece. But these stories grew cold as a century turned and time marched on without him. Everyone Kitten once loved was dead. He should be, too.

july01Facing the sea once more, he spoke aloud. “My name is Kitten Blankenship.” The wind would hear his usual prayer. “My parents were Margaret Hudson and Roger Blankenship, and I had a sister, Marcella. I was born in Yorkshire in 1853. And I would like to be free of the house now, please.”

The bazaar of murres rose as one body at the echo of his voice and made bleating for a rock formation that rose from the sea. Their departure drew Kitten’s eye to distant electric lights. From their sparseness and height, he picked out the perimeter of a small town. Kitten smiled, but remained sitting on the cobblestone beach. A waning half-moon sagged low on the horizon, and he’d found a hollow in the rock face, its entrance swollen with small bones and matted fur. He didn’t like to venture into the towns on his first night out of the house. Better to marvel at the natural world in a new place, enjoying his discoveries and regretting all he’d never been allowed to learn. The bones and fur, for instance. Kitten couldn’t even say what they probably were; he didn’t know where he was or what lived there, what sorts of animals nested in rock hollows on stony beaches. The bestiary might tell him, but probably not. Kitten was sixteen or seventeen when he learned to tell stories to himself.

Hunger drove him back to the house. Some Julys, he slept outside. Even if no better shelter were available and he had to huddle against the house’s oxide-colored walls, he’d never forsaken the mercy of a July. Not this time, though. This new place too cold, its wind too harsh and its town too far , so Kitten grudgingly pulled open the door that scraped loud on dry grass and reentered his prison.

On the table: a loaf of sweet bread, its crust steaming in the chill, an apple with reddening green skin, a smallish hunk of orangish cheese, a pot of hot water with lemon, and none of it there when he’d stepped outside. A July news bill told him the year was 1912 before Kitten stopped trying to catch the house in the act of providing his food. And 1946, a radio said, before he accepted the house was smarter than him. Food simply appeared, three squares, when he had his back turned. The fare was never complex, but what Kitten appreciated more was the secret of its appearance that the house kept from him. He didn’t want to see a hallway extend from a wall gone soft as clay, couldn’t stomach the thought of the house reaching into other empty spaces to steal for him.

More often than not, Kitten dreamed of meat. A roast Cornish hen dripping in juice, sizzling belly of pork, a fat slice of ham. In his meat dreams, there was tea, too, and butter and jam for the bread, tall tin tumblers of fresh milk, lemony crumpets with a bit of clotted cream, peppermint sticks. Tonight’s humble meal, he pretended was a fast for July Eve. Tomorrow, he would go into the town. He would learn the year, see what new marvels the passage of time had wrought, and find the good food. He would gorge himself on it, carry it in baskets wherever he went, and never share a morsel of it with the house.

The socks limited his dexterity, and Kitten’s hands grew numb while he ate. Finished, he rose and stood before the lone small cabinet by the window. Shivering, with his hands tucked in his armpits, he said, “Gloves,” then counted to ten, and opened the cabinet. Only the sewing kit there on the shelf. Only ever the sewing kit, full of needles and thimbles, but lacking thread. The expectant smile he’d worn since the house touched down, the front door opened, and he knew it was July faded from Kitten’s face. He could feel the knot in his throat. It made him sound like he was whimpering when he said, “Please? I’m cold.”

The door to the second room, the hated room, the one that could expand and contract, reach through space and push beyond time, creaked open, swung itself shut again. In the cabinet, the sewing kit skittered.

“No,” Kitten moaned. “It’s July. Please?”

The eldritch door opened and slammed, opened and slammed while Kitten squeezed shut his eyes and wrapped his arms about his head. Sometimes the house got angry with him, and it would tilt on its unnatural axis, befriending gravity to send him sprawling through the door. There, in the house’s warped second room, roamed all of Kitten’s lost time. All the months and years he should have aged but didn’t, so long as he spent them wandering through the house’s unmeasurable, self-contained maze. It was July, though, and Kitten had been let outside. The door shut itself once more, made a sound like the clicking of a lock, and when Kitten opened his eyes, a blanket rested on the back of the table’s only chair, and the wood-burning stove crackled to life.

Kitten sniffled and wormed the socks back over his hands, readjusted his head scarf, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and settled down with his bestiary in front of the stove. Hours later, when the moon’s light grayed the barren front room, a muffled sound drew Kitten back from the edges of sleep. He squinted at the new shadow beside the door. When he made it out, he sighed.

“Bicycle,” he said. “Thank you.”

Tucked into the basket on the bicycle: fleece-lined gloves, a wad of ten-dollar bills. The house provides. Its reach extends beyond closed doors and down long hallways, into empty rooms, abandoned atriums, and untrod stairwells. It connects to all forgotten and vacant places, into sealed-up voids and architectural blanks. The second room with its closed door is in perpetual communion with all the world’s closed doors so that its pets may never escape. Kitten, like others before him and more sure to come, attempted, in his younger Julys, to leave the house behind. To run, hitchhike, beg clemency, seek asylum in a new city, a new building somewhere far from where the house touched down. All of them, the house’s pets, hundreds of miles and weeks away, thinking themselves free, have once opened a closed door, crossed the threshold, and found themselves back inside the house.

july02Call it a cuckoo building. A spat-up space. Its learning curve is slow, recursive. It knows not what it does, only what it needs. A damned, demanding thing. Like a child. It killed its first pet, not out of malice, but for lack of knowing when its pet needed feeding. First a starving pet, moaning low, then a rotting pet, full of stink. So the house chose to return to its first pet’s home, to use its hidden geometries to slip the bones through unoccupied walls. It put its pet back where it found him. Like a child.

Learning to mistrust doors, other pets have run away, not to other places, but to other sides, determining death preferable to the house’s love. The house hurts, but does not know how it came to hurt. It knows that it is broken, that some part of it is torn, ripped from its moorings and made sick inside. It cannot form ideas; its communication is nonverbal, crudely symbolic, like a child’s. It shakes the sewing kit at its pets, but they don’t know what to do.

The pets rail and leave, come back and leave again, come back and kill themselves. The house hurts. It keeps them alive well past their times, its brokenness wronging them, too, from the inside out. It waits for one to come who can mend the tear, who knows the proper use of needle and thread.

Kitten stays. He is the oldest. He no longer tries to leave. He pales when the sewing kit appears, screams at the walls and weeps. I don’t know what you want me to do, he says. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. The house hears him, wishes it knew. Kitten would do it, the house knows, if he could. He would mend the tear, sew them both up, house and pet, seal them up safe and together forever, the house and its Kitten.

Highway 101 graced the coastal Oregon town for two and a half miles before hair-pinning back along a picturesque but desolate shore. The people there prided themselves on their cows, and Kitten had his fill of cheese and burgers, ice cream and taffy and smoked jerky. He fished pale shells and marbleized rocks from the waves, explored junk shops, rented a kite from a beach shack and spent an afternoon flying it, huddled in the town’s small library, filling his mind and his eyes with history he’d never lived, learned that the century had turned again. Not just a century, but a millennium this time, and Kitten thought that this must make him unique among men, but there was no one to tell, none who would believe.

Sometime in the town’s past, a train ran through it. When the train stopped running, the town planted a caboose at the dead line-switch. The day Kitten discovered he was experiencing a new millennium, he took to pacing the rusting tracks until, five paces from the caboose, he saw a tie catch the light, and he knelt to look. Keys, a few dozen of them, from tiny gold ones meant for padlocks to thick silver ones made for deadbolts, were nailed to that tie and that tie only, and Kitten crouched low, finally sitting on the ground to run his fingers over the keys and wonder a new wonder.

“You know what they’re there for?”

Kitten looked up into the face of a young girl. She had long, black hair, like Mousie’s. Kitten had seen her more often than anyone else in the town; he suspected she was the daughter of one of the waitresses at the town’s breakfast diner.

“You’ve been following me, haven’t you?” he asked.

The little girl shrugged. “Maybe. You want to know about those keys, though?”

Kitten nodded. The girl smiled, plopped down beside him in the dirt, put both small hands on the tie as though she could touch all of the keys at once if she tried hard enough.

“I think they’re very beautiful,” she said. “All the colors and shapes and the different ways people nail them.” She looked up to see if Kitten shared her feelings on this matter and, apparently not finding what she sought in his expression, lifted one skinny shoulder. “Anyway,” she went on, “my mom says people treat these old train tracks like a wishing well, but opposite-like. These keys, they’re for locks that people can’t open. To places they’ve lost or can’t go back to or that aren’t there anymore. So they nail the keys here so the places won’t be forgotten.”

Kitten wished he had a key. He hadn’t taken a key to the house in Yorkshire with him that day. He’d only meant to be gone with his mates for an afternoon, meant to go home to his birthday dinner before the sun had set, and he thought how out of place his old key would look next to all of these modern ones. He exhaled, slow and shuddery, and said, “That’s pretty.”

“Pretty sad,” the girl said. “I’m Lana. And yeah, I’ve been following you. I follow all the travelers. Not much happens here except new people coming and going.” She seemed to have lost interest in the keys, having instead pulled a wad of mismatched yarn and string from her pocket, and she sat, trying to untangle the hopeless knot. She didn’t look up from this project when she asked for Kitten’s name, but when he replied, she dropped the pile of threads in her lap. “A boy named Kitten? You aren’t BSing me, are you?”

“I don’t know what BSing means.”

“It means,” —Lana leaned in close, whispering— “bullshitting.” She giggled, but Kitten still looked confused, so she rolled her eyes and said, “It means I think you’re making things up. Where are you from, anyway?”

“A long way away,” Kitten said.

“Like how far?”

“Like England,” Kitten said, surprised at himself for mimicking her speech. But she reminded him so much of Mousie, it felt like playing one of their old games.

“Oh,” Lana said, drawing out the word. “I get it. We talked about England in social studies last year. Mrs. Mullen said you still speak English there, but it’s sort of a different type of English from here.” She nodded, satisfied with her own explanation. “Where’re you staying?”

“Outside of town,” Kitten said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of where the house had come down. He didn’t like thinking about the house while talking to Lana. “On the beach.”

“In a motel, or like camping?” Lana asked.

“Like camping.”

Lana wrinkled her nose. “My mom took me camping once. I hated it. There weren’t toilets, and I couldn’t shower. Do you get to shower at your campsite? You smell like you get to shower. You’re not one of those weird people who refuse to have jobs and jump trains and camp all the time because of politics, are you, Mr. Kitten?”

“I…” Kitten cocked his head, tried to figure out what the girl meant, couldn’t. He’d have to see if the library had any books on such subjects. It was embarrassing to know less about the world than a young girl, so he gave her a mischievous grin and said, “Well, what do you think?”

She crossed her arms, looked him up and down, left and right, then shook her head. “No,” she decided. “You’re not a weirdo. Even if you are camping on the beach and your clothes are funny.”

“Funny how?” Kitten asked.

“Old funny.”

“I’m an old man.”

“How old?”

“Would you believe me if I said I’m a hundred and sixty?”

“No!” Lana laughed. “How could you be that old and not be dead?”

“Maybe I should be dead,” Kitten said, and he looked down at the keys. They caught the light, reflected it, dazzled his eyes, and before he could stop himself, he said, “Maybe I have a secret house with hidden rooms and endless hallways, and when I get lost inside it, time stops passing for me. Maybe I’m trapped there, and I only get to come out for one month every couple of years, and when I go back, the house erases my years. Maybe that’s what’s happened to me.”

The sound of Lana’s laughter broke the keys’ spell, and Kitten’s eyes got wide with the realization of what he’d said. A thing he’d never said to another, but even as Lana mocked him, he couldn’t deny that telling someone, speaking it aloud, had felt good.

“Okay, now you’re BSing me,” Lana said. “You’re funny, Mr. Kitten. I like that.”

Something very close to them made a musical, chirping sound, and Lana pulled a flat, black phone from her pocket, poked it and frowned at it, then announced she had to go. She mounted the blue bicycle she’d left leaning against the side of the caboose and rode away, pink streamers fluttering from handlebars.

Kitten remained on the tracks, feeling the cool shapes of the keys, thinking about what Lana had said about them, feeling clean and light from his confession.

Lana cropped up again, again. When Kitten least expected her, she’d slide into his booth at the Cow Belle Café and steal his fried potatoes, or flop down into the seat next to him at the library’s long table and ask what he was reading, or find him on the beach and start skipping stones if the sea was still or drawing in the sand with a stick if the waves were high. She asked him questions about himself, sometimes, but mostly she talked to him about her own life. About the boys and girls at her school and who liked who and how nobody liked her, not like that; about her mom and her mom’s new boyfriend, who drove a big, Mack truck and smelled all the time of beer and cigars; about video games and the Internet and how her mom wouldn’t let her use certain sites. She used Kitten to rehearse her arguments about why she should be allowed to wear makeup (Susie Dilligner did) or shave her legs (the swim team girls did) or have her own Facebook account (she was going to be in middle school this year, after all, and did her mom want her to be unpopular forever?).

And Kitten listened, asked questions in return, offered what little advice he had to give, and imagined that Lana was a new millennium’s Mousie. He told Lana about Mousie, about how his mum had given five babies back to God before his surviving sister was born, how her name was Marcella, but she was Mum’s Miracle, and if he was Kitten, then she was his Mousie, and when Lana asked, instead of his story about Mousie marrying one of his mates, he told Lana the truth: that he’d sent Mousie back home from the market on his fifteenth birthday and gone to meet up with his mates, and he entered the house on a dare, and he never saw Mousie or Mum or Father again. And when Lana’s phone summoned her home and Kitten went back to the iron-red house, he thought about all of the Julys he’d passed alone, wondering if he could call Lana a friend.

july03A column of names, places, and objects decorated the inside of the house’s front door. Kitten started it in the beginning of his tenure in the house, when he hadn’t an inkling of how or why he was there, what would happen to him the longer he stayed. It was his list of remembrances and desires, started with ‘Mum and Father and Mousie,’ followed by ‘Angelica Wilson’ and the names of his mates. It got vaguer from there on out, included things like ‘mutton’ and ‘my good shoes’ and ‘a real bed.’ In more practical moments, he’d included the dates from the two times the whole world had gone to war and a sort of genealogical tree he updated every time he learned about a new member of the royal family. The notation ‘John the dog’ helped him recall a shaggy, gray puppy that had followed him through a 1970s July. The hound bayed piteously when the house made its departure; Kitten wept at the decision to leave John in the world. If he hadn’t, maybe he’d still have a dog-friend, maybe he wouldn’t need the passing fancy of a little girl.

Nonetheless, one day he gave Lana two dollars and asked her to buy him a permanent black marker from the drugstore. She asked why he wouldn’t do it himself and he told her that the house wouldn’t let him keep anything that wasn’t a gift. She said she didn’t believe it, but came out with the marker tied up in a red ribbon. To the painted, carved, and penciled-in list, he used the marker to add the name ‘Lana.’

One day, Kitten didn’t go into town. He talked aloud, telling himself lies about wanting to explore the parts of the coast people didn’t inhabit, to see the animals and contemplate the black waves of the sea and its cobblestones. The truth gnawed at him. July was winding down, a week left at best, and he needed to distance himself from Lana. She occupied his thoughts when he returned to huddle by the woodstove at night. He’d recall games and jokes he’d shared with Mousie and wonder whether Lana would like them or if they were too old. He’d flip the pages of his bestiary in the slim stove light, looking for neat tidbits to share with her. And though he wasn’t ungrateful, he wondered if it had been a mistake to make a friend. One hundred and fifty years he’d missed his family, his friends, and the time made the missing fade. He hadn’t had to miss anyone new, and suspected it would hurt all over again, like he’d never missed anyone before, because already it hurt to think about how, once the house left, he wouldn’t get to see Lana again. The house hadn’t chosen the same place twice, not since Kitten had been with it, but even if it picked this part of Oregon again, another century might have passed, and Lana would be dead, the railroad tie rotten, its keys sunk into hard-packed gray earth.

Kitten didn’t go to town the next day, either. He rode his bicycle in the opposite direction instead and delighted to find the factory the people had built for their cows. He spent the day going on the guided tours, learning about the making of cheese and ice cream and watching the cattle grazing in a pen so huge, Kitten felt he’d traded seas of water for seas of beef. He tasted free samples of ten different kinds of cheese, tiny spoonfuls of 36 flavors of ice cream, sampled snippets of jerky, and watched children crank a machine that left smiling cow faces stamped into their pennies. With a bloated belly and a smile on his face, Kitten rode back to the house, where a pink bicycle streamer fluttered in the grass by the front door.

By the time he found Lana, pouting over a cup of hot cocoa in the Cow Belle Café, the cold on Kitten’s skin seemed like a side effect of the cold in his belly. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to admit to the house, not after he’d told Lana the truth about it, so he ordered a cup of coffee and sat across from her, enduring her scowls, waiting for them to turn into words. Lana’s silence continued until Kitten suggested they go sit on the boardwalk across the street. There, Lana admitted she thought Kitten had left without telling her goodbye, so she biked along the beach, looking for his camp. She demanded an explanation for his two-day absence, and when Kitten said he’d only wanted to see what was in the other direction, Lana sneered and said it was only the Tillamook factory, that she’d been on a field trip there for every year she’d been in school, and she never wanted to eat another piece of cheese in her life (a statement she undermined the next day when she helped herself to half of Kitten’s grilled cheese sandwich). She also admitted to finding the house, which had never been there before, and she wanted an explanation for its appearance. She refused to believe it wasn’t his, an edge in her voice when she recounted his tale of a moving, mysterious building capable of swallowing time and life. But Kitten couldn’t humor her. Kept seeing the pink streamer from her bike curling in the grass and getting a feeling like he was sweating inside when he thought about her pushing at the door or standing on tip-toe to peer in a window. He pointed to a jagged rock formation.

“Look, Lana,” he said. “Look at all the murres.”

Squinting at the ocean, Lana nodded. “Did you know that a group of murres is called a fragrance?” she asked. “I know you like words and information and stuff.”

“A fragrance? My bestiary says they’re called a bazaar,” he said. “A fragrance. Like the fragrance of myrrh. I like that. I think I like that one better. I’m going to miss you, Lana.”

“You are leaving, then.”

“Soon,” Kitten said.

“How soon?”

“Soon.”

“And will the house go with you?” she asked. “If I go back there, after you’re gone, that house’ll be gone, too, won’t it? You weren’t lying to me or making up stories. I felt it, when I was there. This strange feeling. The same feeling I got the first time I saw you. I didn’t go in. Just so you know.”

“Don’t,” Kitten said. “Don’t you ever go in. Promise me, Lana. Promise me you won’t ever go into a strange house by yourself.”

But Lana didn’t promise. Wouldn’t promise, talked instead until the sun slipped low in the sky. She pulled her wad of yarn and string from her pocket and picked at it while she talked about wanting to leave Rockaway, Oregon. How she thought she never would and her mom didn’t seem to care, and how Kitten had become a better friend in a few weeks than anyone she’d known in her whole life here. Kitten patted Lana’s back and stroked her black hair while she sniffled adolescent girl sniffles and despaired of her future. Told her she’d leave Rockaway one day, she just had to be patient, and she’d grow up strong and smart and beautiful, move away to a big city, live a brilliant, exciting life. But Lana only bit her lip and thanked him for trying. When her phone squawked, she got on her bicycle and rode off without saying goodbye.

The sewing kit scrabbled at the walls of the cabinet throughout the night, flung itself at the cabinet’s door, keeping Kitten awake. He got up, once, opened the cabinet, removed the kit, walked it through the crisp night air to the overhang, used all of his might to throw it into the Pacific, and waited for a splash he’d never hear above the waves. By the time he got back inside, the kit was back in the cabinet, and the cabinet dripped saltwater from its corners.

Four more days. Four more days of hot food and the sight of people, being in the world, and Lana’s company. The girl acted subdued. On the fifth day, Kitten woke to the knowledge that this was the last of July. That he’d go back to the house that night and not emerge again for decades untold, and for the first time in years, he found himself wondering if he could outwit the house. Perhaps he could live on the beach, camp like he’d told Lana he did. Find a job, save money, build a house of his own, one he wanted, one without doors. Yet even as he thought these things, he knew it was useless. Who would hire a gray-haired man with no experience in any trade, who barely understood what a computer did, who’d never once spoken on a telephone? If he’d learned anything from Lana, it was how ill-fitted he was for this new millennium, or it for him. His thoughts opposed themselves. Maybe he’d never come out of the house again. He never understood why it let him out some Julys but not others, and maybe it was to keep him human, to keep him sane, and the real way to end it would be to never come out, to fall deep, deep inside, to go mad with the house, become its soul.

Kitten took the rest of the money to town with him. He’d spent some time looking around the house for some token to give to Lana, but the only thing that seemed appropriate was the bestiary, and Kitten couldn’t bring himself to part with that. Instead, he treated Lana to a big waffle breakfast and ice cream for lunch, bought her a knapsack she coveted from a shop on Main Street. He assumed he’d return to the house once Lana’s mum called her home. He hadn’t expected it to be so early. Midafternoon when she jumped up from the railroad tie where they’d sat to contemplate the keys together one last time, and she said something about a dentist’s appointment, how she’d begged her mom not to make her go, to change the appointment to a different time or day. She hugged Kitten long and hard until his neck ached, and he hugged her back, sorry to see her go.

One last meal at the Cow Belle Café before walking his bicycle through the main street of town, saying silent goodbyes to Rockaway, Oregon. Kitten rode slow, looking at the coast but not seeing it, thinking instead of all the places he’d been, the places the house had taken him: The tip of Florida where no one would look him in the eye; a deserted Italian shore where he hardly saw another living thing; the coast of North Carolina, where he’d met John the dog; a frozen lake where the inhabitants didn’t speak any language he knew, and who gave him salted fish and a hard, flavorless bread in exchange for his coins. Only the sight of the Tillamook factory shook Kitten from his memories and, confounded, he pointed his bicycle in the other direction. He rode back and forth, seeking the house and not finding it, secretly hoping it had gone without him, suspicious of that thought from the outset. He sought the overhang and the forked rock formation instead, the one always covered in a fragrance of murres, and when he found them, he dropped his bicycle to the ground and stumbled forward, sobbing before he even knew what he saw.

Pushed-down grass marking the footprint of the house. Empty ocean shore and the sound of waves rattling the stones. A hollow in a rock full of fur and bones. A blue bicycle with pink streamers on its handlebars lying in the weeds. And nothing more.

Lana is nineteen by her own clock and twenty-eight by the world’s the first time the house lets her leave. She experiences an acute sensation whenever she remembers her initial hours in that warped and damaged place. How she opened the knapsack Kitten had bought her, the one she stuffed full of all the things her ten-year-old mind thought she’d need to hide out there and run away with Kitten. How she found the knapsack empty and was convinced she’d freeze or starve, because she hadn’t believed Kitten when he’d told her the house would provide.

She still trembles a bit when the second door opens and the floor shakes and groans and tilts sideways, giving her a glimpse of a plain, unfurnished room that unfolds, unfurls into a growing black spiral, finding depth, seeking distance, Euclidean geometry stretching itself thin before it sucks her through. It has happened so many times now she’s lost count and isn’t as terrified as the first time she got lost in the house’s secret, shifting maze.

july04The sewing kit bothered her a lot those first few years. It pounded and scraped, battered the cabinet, might as well have been battering the inside of her skull. She doesn’t remember when she fished the knot of tangled thread from her pocket, when she set the knot next to the kit and watched, tears pouring down her face and a bad feeling in her stomach, while the two objects danced. Lana only knows that this is a recent development, this sense of what she needs to do.

The July air is warm when she steps out of the house. She doesn’t know where she is, and hardly thinks it matters. Lana doesn’t wait. She walks to the nearest town as soon as she picks it out, inquires, finds a crafting store. She spends all of the money she has, save the price of a hot meal, on yarn and twine and embroidery thread, then she goes back to the house.

It is excited. It knows that she knows. Atonal, piping music plays from behind the second door. The sewing kit jigs on the table, spins in circles and hops up and down, its needles sharp and shining, ready to be used.

“Shut up,” Lana snaps. “I figured it out, no thanks to you. Have some patience.”

She finds the marker she bought for Kitten when she was ten. It still has a red ribbon tied around it, though the ribbon has faded and split, and Lana cries a little bit, thinking about it. She wonders if she’ll be able to find Kitten again, if it’s as simple as she thinks and the house will be fixed and she will be free. She tries to remember being ten and what it was she’d been thinking. She goes to the front door, runs her fingers down the list Kitten made. She’s read it so many times she can recite it by heart. Then she kneels, lowers herself to her elbows so she can reach the door’s bottom-most edge, uncaps the marker, and makes her first and only addition right beneath her own name.

Kitten, she writes.

 end_of_story

kami

K.L. Owens is a picture framer who occasionally tends bar at gallery openings. She holds a B.A. in existential philosophy, and received her MFA from the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop. In 2004, Owens received the Quarante Club Prize for Women in Literature, and in 2015, she was the runner-up for the Svenson Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in The Riding Light Review, freeze frame fiction, and Fur-Lined Ghettos. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and three cats, and while she moves with some acumen through space, she has yet to successfully travel in time.

 

Return to Shimmer #27 | Escape the house and Subscribe

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.

dust01In 1932, the dust began to blow and it never stopped. That was the only sign the rest of the world seemed interested in, especially once some of our dirt rained on Mr. Roosevelt’s head in D.C. and turned his morning milk an ugly pinky-brown. Then it was suddenly a bona fide Natural Disaster. Newspapers all over the country worried about THE BLACK BLIZZARDS OF THE MIDWEST, and asked WILL WE BE NEXT?

The newspapers didn’t mention the tractor oil or the bad seed. They didn’t say how sometimes you looked south through the haze and saw pale green hills where there weren’t hills before, like distant cities made of moss, and felt a strange pressing on your limbs as if some vast, unseen force were pushing you away from the land you worked. I guess they didn’t believe it. I don’t blame them. I barely believed it myself.

Until I found you, babygirl. Until you came back to me.

Now, I know people find babies sometimes and it doesn’t mean the world’s ending. It usually just means some poor girl found herself in a bad way and made her child a raft of reeds and floated him downriver, or left him on a doorstep. Babies are pretty ordinary in the grand scheme of things.

But she wasn’t ordinary. I was walking the field—field being a relative term, nobody in their right mind could’ve seen those scraggled stalks sticking up from the ground like dry-rotted teeth and recognized it for a field—and there she was. Naked as a turnip, the color of dust. Nestled among the broken wheat like she’d grown there all spring, sage-bright eyes waiting just for me.

I had time to think oh, babygirl, I missed you, and then I was back home, kneeling on the floor, clutching her to my chest and heaving with hurt. My tears caked into salted mud on my cheeks. Where they landed on her cinnamon skin they seeped like rain into cracked earth.

Babygirl, I missed you. Why did you go? I carried you seven long months, right below my heart, and then you up and left me before I could even give you a name. And I was all alone with nothing for company but this damn dust that chatters and whispers to me in my sleep.

In D.C. all those smart folks and science-types got together and published a thin blue pamphlet that said exactly why our dirt had risen up like a great red ghost and whistled away from us. They used words like “dryland farming” and “over-plowed,” and I’m no great shakes at reading but I know when I’m being blamed for the end of the world. Like we should’ve known better than to plant our wheat right in the belly of the country, and harvest and plow and plant again, like we’d been warned and this was God’s own retribution for our arrogance.

Horseshit, Uncle Emmett would say. The rain follows the plow, that’s what they said when he came west to farm his plot of prairie grass and bluestem. He plowed and plowed and the rain stopped coming, and now the people follow the rain.

The pamphlet also gave us a five step system to prevent further erosion. John and I tried our best to follow the directions, and so did our neighbors. When your fields stand barren and the wind whispers ugly truths in your ears and all your fresh milk goes sour overnight, there’s not much you won’t try.

1. Terrace Your Fields! Have you ever tried to pile dust into terraces? It’s like building a sandcastle out of sugar in a windstorm.

2. Irrigate Regularly! We laughed and laughed when we read that one, John and me. We shook our fists at the hazed orange sky and advised it to irrigate regularly. But John’s laughter turned to coughing, and we fell into silence that wasn’t silence because even on a clear day you heard the dust shush-shushing over the ground.

3. Build Windbreaks! John tried. I helped, but I was pretty far along by then and he didn’t like to see me hauling pallets in the noon heat, leaning them against our old fence line. Get gone, he told me, in that false-rough way of his. That’s what I liked about him the first time I set eyes on him—he had that stoic, hardscrabble jaw, like every other man in western Kansas, but John’s eyes were laughing eyes. Bull-thistle blue, crimped in brown lines at their edges.

The next morning our windbreaks were splintered and scattered, strewn across the land in queer jagged shapes. We didn’t try again.

4. Let the Land Rest! We figured that was another way of saying: Leave. The soil you remember, the soil you used to run your fingers through like wet black coffee grounds when you were a girl, has gone away and you ought to follow it. I wish we had. I wish John and I and our babygirl were lying in an orange grove in south Georgia, and the world was bright green and blue like it is on the label of FAULTLESS BRAND FRUIT SALAD.

5. Keep Your Chin Up! There is nothing more galling in the world than somebody better off than you telling you to keep your chin up. Imagine Mr. Ford pausing beside the bread line and advising those poor hungry-eyed bastards to keep their chins up. I cursed a blue streak the first time I read it.

The second time, I took a match to it and tossed the ashes into the wind. Maybe it ended up back in the East and turned the President’s milk char-black.

That was after John drowned in the blood and mud of his own lungs. It was the middle of a storm, one of the boiling black ones that lasted days, so I just sat and sat at the kitchen table because there was nowhere to go, no one to tell, nothing but the sound of dust slithering like a great snake across the tin. I hoped it would slide down through the rafters and swallow me whole.

I should’ve remembered to eat, babygirl. I know that now. I should’ve slept. I should have curled around the tiny flutter of your heart and kept you safe and stopped the bleeding, and when you slid red and purple-white into the world, small as a crow, I should have fought for you. Instead I just sat, dizzy and dull, listening to the dust.

But you came back to me. I don’t know how because I buried you and John deep as I could in the hardpan, but maybe the ones we love best come back to us. Maybe John is walking towards me right now, out of those distant green hills.

dust02


Charity Glover and the ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses arrived at some ungodly hour the next morning to check up on me. The way vultures like to check up on roadkill. They’d been coming once a week since the bad storm, clucking and shuffling and leaving pies with the crusts cut just so.

“Good morning, Mrs. Dawley,” chirped Charity. She always seemed to swallow the second half of the missus, like she still couldn’t believe I’d married a penniless tenant-farmer and she was giving me the chance to undo it now. “And how are we to—”

She saw the red-cotton bundle in my arms. One little fist waved cheerily at her. The ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses stood still as hens with a hawkshadow overhead.

“Where—oh, Selma, where did you get that baby?”

Did she think I’d stolen her? I knew they didn’t like me much, because I refused to join their club and only went to Church about every fifth or fifteenth Sunday, but Jesus H. “I found her.” I made my voice flat as cold iron.

The other women shuffled, but Charity was made of sterner stuff. “Where, dear?”

I found her in the dust, but she’s mine, I know she is—from dust to dust, isn’t that how it goes? “In the wheatfield. To the south.”

I watched her face, white as an undercooked pancake, turn whiter. All the trouble seemed to come up from the south, from those wavering green hills we tried to ignore.

Imogene Hale opened her mouth and closed it. She finally got out, “And just what do you intend to do with it?”

“I don’t see how that’s a damn bit of your business, Imogene,” I spat. That temper, John used to tell me, it’ll get you in trouble one day. I made myself smile in that softening way, like a woman overworked who just didn’t know what she’s saying, bless her heart. “I just mean she was left on my land, and that makes her my trouble.” They knew about the sovereignty of property lines. “I guess I intend to take care of her.”

Charity pasted a matching smile on her face. They fluttered amongst themselves and produced a pot pie and a jar of pickled beans in a basket. A little blue pamphlet stuck out of it like a flag. “You can get the basket back to me on Sunday,” said Charity. “And I noticed you didn’t come by the Post Office so I brought you the new Better Farming booklet. Read it close, now.”

They scampered back through the rust-colored yard and left us alone to watch the sun swim up from its bloody sea, dim and distant.

I should have asked about spare milk; I’d dried up weeks ago and the baby from the field wasn’t very interested in powdered milk warmed on the stove top. She’d howled until tiny tears gathered like dewdrops at the corners of her eyes and I’d given up in disgust with myself, a woman near thirty who didn’t know how to care for a baby.

She was mewling now. I repeated the powdered milk experiment inside. She spat it out, unrepentant eyes glowing scrub-green.

You must’ve got that anger from me, babygirl. Your Daddy would laugh and laugh if he were here.

I flipped through Better Farming: Strategies for Soil Conservation in the Drought-Affected Areas, rather than curl up on the floor and cry myself sick. The booklet was the same waste of ink and pulp it was before, but there were six steps now.

6. Don’t be afraid! However, should you encounter any unusual events or irregularities, DO NOT ENGAGE. Report them to your Extension Agent IMMEDIATELY.

Apparently somebody official, somebody with a nice corner office in a government building, believed in our portents. The horseshoes rusting to dust overnight, the apple trees turning to chalky stone, the green mirages in the south. And he didn’t like them much.

The wailing sharpened, burrowing like a bonesaw into my chest. A dull, pressing ache began in my breasts, thump-thumping with my heartbeat, and dampness dotted my dress like two tears. I unbuttoned, but it wasn’t cream-colored milk leaking from me. This liquid was clear as rainwater. I touched my fingers to my breast, licked the water from them—it tasted of low-hanging clouds and morning dew, the spring thunderstorms that no longer rolled across the flats. The baby watched with animal-hungry eyes. I pulled her to me, and she suckled like a fawn after a too-long night.

I watched the rainwater gathering at the corners of her red-earth lips and doubt came to me for the first time. She looked so alien, so inhuman, nothing at all like the baby I’d carried in my belly. Prairie-colored eyes flicked up to me, as if they were trying to tell me something, to send me some obscure message in an unfamiliar language.

No, no that isn’t so. You’re my babygirl. You just need to learn how to live here with me, in this dear, dry, dying world.

That Sunday I dressed her in a laced frock the color of old pearls. It made her dark skin seem darker, like dust after rain. (Do you like it? I made it for you, when you still lived beneath my heart.) I wore my best dress and we walked to town under a sky as blue and fragile as bird’s eggs. The wind rose around my ankles, hissing up from the south.

After John died I was a regular at Church, sitting in the back pew waiting for God to come down from his cloud-covered castle and explain why I’d lost my love and my firstborn. Isn’t that kind of thing usually reserved for His enemies? But He never arrived and I grew tired of the sweaty smell of desperation.

That day, I was just going for the pure spite of it. I wanted to show Charity and her hens I wasn’t afraid of them or their damn pamphlet, the way you’d stamp your foot to scare off hungry cats. I wanted to march in with my chin up and my eyes blazing and show them my babygirl, safe in my arms.

I lingered in the open doorway just long enough for heads to crane around, for silence to flutter like a white curtain around us. I smiled a brazen, biting smile with twenty extra teeth that didn’t belong in Church. The heads flicked back towards the pulpit, except for one old man with a bright ring of white hair. Uncle Emmett. I didn’t look at him as I passed.

We sat in the very front pew. In my arms, the baby shifted and tugged in discomfort. Her back arched against my arms. I tried to look like a good mother, with the kind of child who didn’t drink rainwater, whose eyes weren’t green and distant as the hills.

By the time Preacher Jacob stumped his way to the front and began his usual list of announcements, he was speaking over a discontented whine issuing from my arms. He ignored it. Preachers are good at turning their cheeks away from you.

“Now, folks—” He always slipped a “folks” somewhere towards the beginning of his sermons, like a politician. “It seems to me that it’s time to talk about the battle each and every one of us is fighting, against our great enemy—the one great enemy, he who Peter called a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” I felt the congregation lean towards him like moths to a match.

The baby squirmed more forcefully in my arms.

“But I fear we do not see the lion, even as he stalks among us. We see his works and call them uncanny, or strange, or irregular. We dismiss them. But I would remind you that there are only TWO POWERS IN THIS WORLD—” His audience rippled in pleasurable shock, “—yes, that’s right, ONLY TWO POWERS. There is OUR LORD GOD ALMIGHTY, and there is our ENEMY.”

Eyes pressed against the back of my head. The baby wailed. I wished we were both curled in our quilts at home.

The preacher turned slowly until he faced me. From the first pew I could see the dampness of his hands clamping the lectern, his pupils like distant dead stars, but I imagined it looked more impressive from further away. “And I advise us now to PUT ON THE WHOLE ARMOR OF GOD, that we may STAND AGAINST THE WILES OF THE DEVIL—”

And my babygirl let out a sound like a screech owl at midnight. A wild, fey sound that made every hair stand on end. I stood and walked as fast as a woman can walk without running, eyes burning me like lit cigarettes as I passed.

The wind outside was already meaner and grittier, the fragile blue of the sky rotting to a crusted old-blood color. The door opened and someone shuffled out.

“Selma.”

I wanted to ignore him, or spit in his wrinkled walnut face. But Uncle Emmett was the first one to come by the house after that black storm. He found a ragged husk of a woman lying in the field beside two fresh-dug graves, certain the world had already ended. Instead of hollering for help, he sat down in the dust with me and kept vigil until dusk. Until I decided I didn’t want to die of stubbornness, clinging to the dead bones of the world I’d loved. Until I decided only cowards believed in the end of the world. I owed him for that.

“Selma, don’t you mind Preacher Jacob and his malice.”

“I don’t.”

“Well.” He stepped forward, peered into the blankets to see her springtime eyes watching him solemnly. “As it happens, I think he’s got it wrong this time. I don’t think either of the two powers he was talking about made the dust rise, or sent this baby. Which means there’s some third power. An old, strange one.”

“And here I thought you were a Christian.”

“After a fashion. But what was here before we brought Christ? Just a dead, empty grassland, without a miracle in sight? Horseshit.” I’d never much worried what was here before me, or what came after. “I think whatever was here before—the buffalo, the lions and jack rabbits, Coyote himself—is tired of being forgot. Tired of being plowed and planted and plowed again without so much as a thank you, tired of fence lines and railroad tracks slicing her up like a goddamn jigsaw puzzle. And she’s setting it right.”

He nodded at the white-lace bundle in my arms. “And I figure she’s a part of it, someway or another.”

“No, she isn’t.” Don’t you listen to him, all right babygirl? I know you left me once, all alone except for the old-penny smell of my own blood, but you came back to me and you just haven’t learned yet how to be tame, how to be real. “She’s my daughter. John’s daughter.”

His weathered-wood hand touched my elbow. “What’s her name then, Selma? Call her by her right name.”

She didn’t have a name because I never gave her one, but—

I remembered saying her name long before she was born, when my belly was a soft swell. Bad luck, John said, but he didn’t mean it and I kissed him where his eyes crinkled into crow’s feet. I’d named her, used a bent nail to scratch it into the cross over her grave—

I looked south where the once-green horizon boiled like black tar.

“You better get in there and tell them, Emmett. The dust is rising.”

dust03I ran and the dust ran behind me, shuddering over the dry fields and tossing the earth into the air, playful and cruel as a cat. Red and black swirled around us. I looked down to see her face bright and wild in the wind, her mouth opening to the dust and letting in pour in, her arms waving as though the dirt were a part of her own queer world and she was glad to see it.

Oh Lord, what are you?

The house was dark, the windows alive with black whorls of dust, faint clouds filtering soft as snow through every crack. I laid her on the bed and began the feverish ritual of tying curtains closed and jamming pillows against the door jams, feeling my mouth turn to mud. When I finished we were a pair of pill bugs curled in the dark with the air stale and hot around us.

I know your name, don’t I?

I used to whisper your name as I watered my little kitchen garden, my line of coffee cans trying to protect the soft green shoots in their bellies. I said it as I fell asleep on black nights when every single star was eaten up by dust. I said it to you, do you remember it? I called you—

Her eyes were locked on mine, green with secrets and the silhouettes of cities on the horizon.

“Helena,” I tried to say, but the word tangled in my throat like a calf in barbed wire. It thrashed and fell still.

You’re not my babygirl, are you?

My babygirl died. I remember her tiny chest in my palm, shuddering up and down before the terrible, choking stillness. I remember wiping the blood and fluid off her arms, frail as sparrow wings, and tucking her in an old JC Penny box because I didn’t have anything else.

Helena was her name.

You don’t have a name. You’re not her.

Grief, in my experience, is a lot like dust. It turns food gritty and sour, it sifts onto your pillow as you sleep and burrows into every pore of skin, and you can never truly be rid of it. For a little while I thought I’d finally escaped it—I thought my babygirl came back—but I was wrong.

At dawn I found myself beached on the bed with the dust baby beside me, wet-lipped and watchful.

She blinked at me, solemn as a saint. The dust that settled on her dark limbs in the night was damp, as if she slept beneath a gentle patter or rain. She smelled of the springtimes of my childhood, walking through the fields and feeling the greenness of each wheat stalk unfurling beneath the soil.

She didn’t look much like the end of the world. She was too vital, too alive, and her eyes were pressing at me again as if there were some wordless message she wanted me to read, or an offer she extended.

I rolled away and pulled against the front door until it shhhhed through a drift of glittering dust and hung crooked against the light. The world outside had been remade in the night, sculpted into brown and red hills that shimmered dully in the dawn, beautiful and strange as the surface of a dead planet. It took me a while before I noticed it.

Our old Allis-Chalmers tractor reduced to a few thin iron bones. The ends of my hoe and digging spade rusted to gray dust. The hinges on the door behind me eaten away. There wasn’t a single piece of iron left untouched. The wind had come hissing up from the south and gnawed the metal to dust. On the horizon, that strange green-tinged city shone more clearly than I’d ever seen it.

It was then that I believed, for the first time, the storms would never stop. No matter how many windbreaks we built or how far up we kept our chins. Something out there—something old, something powerful—was through with us. It would peel us off the back of the land like a dog scratching away fleas, and the world would end.

But I’d decided once before, lying atop my husband’s grave and wishing I could sink through the earth to join him, that only cowards believed in the end of the world. It changes, sometimes brutally, and we can either change with it or die of stubbornness.

I stumbled back inside and curled again on the bed beside the dust baby. Is that it? Are we supposed to choose?

Maybe she was an ambassador sent from a neighboring country, offering one last chance for peace before the war. Perhaps if we learned to care for her, and for the wild, strange earth beneath our feet, things would come to a different end. The change might be less brutal. But I thought of Preacher Jacob, of the lean hate on the faces that turned towards me, and knew they’d made their choice.

And so had I.

I pulled the dust baby to me and unbuttoned my dress again. You’ll need that strength soon, dust baby. It won’t be long now.

It wasn’t. They came at dusk, a shambling crowd like a single many-legged beast trudging through the dust. I’d spent the day trailing my fingers over the familiar shapes of home, making furrows in the dust and staring south out my windows.

“Selma Dawley! We’d like a word!” Well, I could hardly lock them out, with no hinges or latch. “Bring that devil out with you.” I thought I recognized Mr. Glover’s voice. I bet Charity was standing at his elbow with her mouth all crimped up like a Christmas bow.

I gathered my few things and settled the dust baby into her crude sling. We faced them together, a horde with nothing left but a hot red thread of hate. Their farms had turned to deserts, their wells were dry, their tools had been eaten away in the night. People get mean, when their world ends.

Mr. Glover stepped towards me. I didn’t move. “Mrs. Dawley, I think you know why we’re here.” I did, but I wanted to hear somebody say it. Like a school ground dare. “We know that storm last night wasn’t natural. And that baby of yours, she isn’t either.” Mr. Glover floundered into silence. I looked for Uncle Emmett, but he wasn’t there. Good man. Somebody would surely tell him where I went, next day, and I pictured his wood-seamed face bending in hope.

Preacher Jacob bulled forward. I guess all that preaching gave him an aversion to silence. “We’re here to set it straight, to cast out our Enemy wherever he lives.” Nodding, shuffling, mean jaws clenching. “We’re calling on you to take that thing back where she came from. Right now.”

Well, they weren’t yet so red-eyed they’d swing an infant by her ankles and smash her skull against the doorframe, but they were teetering on the edge. They were all watching my face for something—rebellion or weakness or possibly Satanic possession—but they didn’t find anything.

I walked through them, barefoot out across the dust-drifted field, putting them at my back. Knobbled wheat stalks hid beneath the sliding dunes, turning my ankles beneath me. The wind tossed little handfuls of dust in my face. The baby in my arms waved her arms in unseemly delight.

Soon the townsfolk were nothing but smudged blurs behind me, wind-blown mirages like the city on the horizon. I passed the little hollow where I’d found the dust baby, but I didn’t stop.

You don’t even have a name. I gave my daughter a name—HELENA DAWLEY, 1934, it says above her grave—but it didn’t save her. Names are just prayers mothers make to the future, that the world will keep spinning on its axis, undying, for as long as you live.

It will, Dustbaby. I didn’t look back. Not once. You only look back if you’re leaving something behind, and all I was leaving was a dead world of neat-planted wheat rows and combines and fresh-paved roads lying like ropes across the land. We’d thought it would last forever. We’d thought we could plow the wild out of the west and build our lives from its sun-bleached bones.

But the wildness slid beneath the thin crust of cornrows and tractor tines, the way prairie fires sometimes dove down into the earth and burned unseen, waiting for months or years before rising and turning the sky red with its heat. I didn’t know what might grow back after the burning, only that I meant to rise from those ashes.

Don’t be afraid! Isn’t that what the pamphlet said?

The blue-green horizon in the south grew clearer and stranger as we walked towards it. The air smelled wild, like mud and stars. The dust beneath my feet began to feel cool and damp, with that almost-vibration that means live things burrowed and crawled and oozed somewhere beneath the surface. Tiny white flowers dotted the earth like constellations. One night, it rained.

They were signs. There are always signs, when the world changes.

end_of_story

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow

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

 

Return to Shimmer #27Become a Sparkly Badger

States of Emergency, by Erica L. Satifka

 

MONTANA

IN A NO-TELL MOTEL just outside Billings, the psychotic cattle rancher known as Paranoid Jack freezes when he sees the baby-blue eyeball glowering at him from the mouthpiece of the Bakelite phone.

“Hello? Hello?”

Jack swallows down the bile rising in his stomach. Nowhere is safe. He sets the phone back in its receiver and walks out to the motel lobby.

“I’d like another room.”

The bored receptionist snaps her gum. “Is there something wrong?”

He gazes around at the tourist guides littering the cramped lobby. The eyes are everywhere. He closes his own. “The moonlight’s keeping me up.”erice-pull1

She rolls her eyes—normal human eyes, for now at least—and flips him another set of keys. Jack doesn’t find the new digs any more comfortable. He blocks his ears as a begging man is whipped with chains, or perhaps alien tentacles topped with metal, in the room next door. It sounds like it hurts.

Jack’s been driving all over Big Eye Country for weeks, warning of the coming infiltration of the Greatest Nation on Earth by the Alien Brotherhood League, but nobody listens to him. He goes to the parking lot where his truck, painted with a tableau of poked-out eyes, waits for him.

A hawk perches on the hood.

Paranoid Jack throws a rock at the bird, missing by a foot. He swipes another stone from the ground and prepares to aim again when the hawk turns its head. Within its beak is one bloody eye that stares right at Jack. It throbs, slightly.

Time to jet, Jack thinks.

FLORIDA

Atlantis rises in Tampa Bay, on a baking hot Thursday without a cloud in the sky. Neptune, the King of the Sea, parades through the palm-lined streets of Tampa on a chariot drawn by oversized seahorses floating through the air. The people on the street might have been more curious about how the seahorses performed their locomotion had they not been distracted by the death toll wrought by the royal procession’s swinging tridents. Though some of the onlookers have fled to temporarily safe locations, most are petrified to the spot, wide-eyed terror engulfing their gore-flicked faces.

Neptune frowns as his own trident comes back with a beating heart speared at the end of it. He sighs and shakes it away, then wipes the tines with his silken robe. Just another day, he thinks.

He’s not the original Neptune. His parents, a triad of desiccated desert spirits, gave him the name ironically. They were disappointed when he took this job.

“I’ll be back for the holidays,” he’d said, and he’d really tried. But life under the sea had changed poor Neptune’s physiology in such a way that he can never go home without suffering extreme physical distress. His parents asked him not to return after he’d run up their water bill by taking eight showers a day.

“I am the mighty water god!” he bellows, though he can’t really claim the title. Another disappointment for his folks. If he’d stayed in the Painted Desert like they wanted him to, he’d have been at least a minor household deity by now, if not yet a true god.

Neptune bids his lackeys to set up his throne on the set of a Girls Gone Wild production, after flattening the director with a blast of his aqua-ray. He wonders if he’ll ever be satisfied with his life, or if he’ll just keep on running the same patterns over and over again.

He just wants to be happy. Is that too much to ask?

DELAWARE

The citizens of the Amalgamated Corporate State of Delaware are shrinking. It’s the only way to fit all fifty million of them in a plot of land as large as some billionaires’ backyards.

They’ve been hiding these extra people for decades, those crafty Delawareans. Each normal-sized resident of the First State keeps several dozen of the small people around his or her house: in the breadbox, in the closet, in the dryer. God help you if you forget to remove the small people before you run a load.

The small people are engaged in the creation of tiny tracking chips, which are installed in credit cards issued by the state to each and every red-blooded debt source in the nation. Day and night, they toil with their machines, creating chips no wider than a human hair.

Nona’s getting sick of the small people who live in her sock drawer. The buzzing of the machinery depresses her. Once, they started a fire.

She wonders what the chips are tracking. She’s asked the Grand Elders of the credit card company she works for about it, but she’s just a lowly data entry clerk and these things are not for her to know. Nona’s stopped using her own cards entirely, risking the wrath of the Corp Corps when she skips by them in her wallet on her way to the cash.

The small people are having a party. She can tell by their raucous voices. She taps on the sock drawer like it’s an aquarium.erica-pull2

“Go away.”

“But this is my house.”

“And shut the drawer behind you.”

Nona slams the drawer. She knows the small people’s work is important, vital really, in some way she can’t understand yet. She knows that someday soon, the small people of the Amalgamated Corporate State of Delaware will rise up and over the East Coast like an overflowing popcorn machine. As someone who’s shielded and nurtured them, she will survive the coming revolution.

She doesn’t know what to make of the fist-sized eyes she now sees in every reflective surface.

NEW YORK

I am the switchboard, the awake man thinks.

He’s got ten thousand people jammed into his brain, this awake man, representing three hulking towers on a formerly-bustling Brooklyn block. Riding the thoughts like a cresting wave, he patrols the park with a truncheon in his hand, slapping it into his palm. The sound rings off the silent streets.

Behind a Dumpster waits an awake woman.

They fight, of course. With snarling teeth and clash of limbs, each awake warrior fights with the combined power of their burden behind them, guiding them in their maneuvers. Clumps of hair flecked with blood drift to the pavement. An ear bounces off a sewer grate. They fight for what seems like hours, the twenty thousand and two.

When it’s all over, both the warriors are dead. Soft rain falls over their mushed bodies, cleansing and cool. Pungent steam rises from the offal.

In a building in South Brooklyn, someone wakes up.

In another building, somebody else does.

VERMONT

From this point on, nobody will die in Vermont, but they continue aging.

ARIZONA

The desert stinks of creosote, and it is full of voices.

In the ghost town of Phoenix, a lonely widow turns on the generator-powered air conditioning to get her through another desert day. Heat hangs around her like a too-thick blanket. Her leathery skin, dried by the sun’s beating rays, is the same even brown as the foraged canned beans she uses in her stews.

Every night she inhabits a different apartment. A different bed to sleep in, a different kitchen to raid, a different closet to pick through. Tonight she wears a men’s double breasted suit and a tie with birds on it.

Come out, says the voice of the desert. Won’t you please come out and play?

The widow picks up her shotgun and cocks it, aiming it toward a cactus growing out of the barren garden of the complex across the road. This ain’t her first day at the rodeo.

Everyone’s here. We’re all waiting for you.

She’s far past reckoning how long it’s been since the day she woke up to find Phoenix deserted. She opened her eyes, and everyone was gone: people, pets, power. The voices had started soon after.

You’re the only one left.

“I know that,” she growls deep in her throat. She sticks the shotgun out the window and fires on the solitary cactus. A rain of green flesh and pink flowers spatters on the asphalt.

erica-pull3The dead city sometimes shows her pictures in her dreams. It shows her friends and family, her husband, out frolicking in some oasis. Water flowing down their bodies, their mouths filled with breadfruit.

Are you scared?

“Yes,” she says, aiming the shotgun at a graffito of an eye chalked on the bank kitty-corner from her borrowed apartment. She doesn’t fire. She’s already running out of shells.

Within the hour the air conditioning gives out. The widow tentatively steps through the front door onto the wide streets. The atmosphere wavers with heat like an oil painting splashed with turpentine.

The voices grow louder, speaking with the combined sound of everyone she’s ever loved, competing for air time with their pitiable screeches.

She’s been to the edge of the dead city, and she knows there’s nothing out there. Not just empty space, not just blackness. There’s nothing out there. Just a void.

We miss you.

“I miss you too,” the widow says, as she looks for another dead building, another live generator. She lives in the city center now, far away from the void. But it’s not enough distance for the voices.

We love you. Don’t you like us anymore? Come back to us. What’s wrong with you?

THE LINE

This isn’t Paranoid Jack’s first visit to the line that circumscribes and contains the rapidly decaying American heartland, but it may be the one involving the most shoes.

They drop their shoes when they leave, these faithless emigrants. Just slide right out of them. Rows of penny loafers, Mary Janes, high-tops, and cowboy boots line the border from Washington to Maine, toes to the north.

(On the southern border they leave small bundles of hair lovingly tied up with string, which seems somehow much worse.)

Jack picks his way along the mound of shoes, which comes up to his knees. He’s never left America before. Never wanted to. Everything he knows and loves is here. He’s even grown to love the Alien Brotherhood League, for all that he’s condemned them in his broadsheets.

But it’s time. Jack unlaces his threadbare sneakers and places them atop the pile, pointing them in the correct cardinal direction. Then he shucks off his socks and sinks his feet into the mushy loam.

“What are you waiting for, asshole?” says the little man who lives in his hair. He told Jack he was from Delaware, but Jack’s pretty sure he’s just a random misfiring of brain chemicals.

“Shut up,” Jack replies through gritted teeth. “This isn’t easy for me, you know.”

So much of his life spent to chronicling the manifestations. So many of his warnings gone unheeded. Perhaps up there, people will understand. Out there. What was the name of that country again?

He steps across the river of shoes and immediately collapses.

UR-KANSAS

Professor Melody Zhang slides her camera into her satchel and calls it a day. She’s been out at the site for the past two weeks, and her team is no closer to discovering the origin of the ziggurat that appeared out of nowhere forty miles due north of Little Rock.

“Hey Doc, wanna hit the town?”

Melody rolls her eyes. She’s never been much for partying, and the closest town to the encampment is a little hayseed dump where Asians were almost as alien a sight as ancient Mesopotamian structures. “Pass.”

“Well, if you have some free time tonight, take a look at these rubbings.”

She took the paper from her assistant. The cuneiform wasn’t the same as that used by the ancient Babylonians, not even close. They still hadn’t worked out the phraseology, despite the presence of linguists from all over the world. “Okay.”

“And try not to work too hard. We’re all worried about you.”

“I’ll be fine.” She slips the paper into her satchel with the camera and walks to her scooter. Not for the first time, she wonders at how calmly the people here have taken this. When the ziggurat appeared, everyone had freaked out…except the locals, who regarded it as a sight no more interesting than the opening of a new discount store. They’d been more disturbed by the scientists sent here to study their structure, and agreed to outside interference only under duress.

Weirdos. Melody sticks her key into the ignition and turns it.

Then a warrior clad in bronze armor steps up behind her and slices her head off with his sword.

NEBRASKA

In a bunker buried underneath Chimney Rock, a man tortures another man until he dies. The first of these people strikes a fearsome pose, seeing as how he is nine feet tall, and his face has been replaced with a metal grate.

In fact, the first man is two people sewn into one body. The two men sealed up within the skin used to fight all the time, but now realize they must work together if they’re ever going to find a way out of this mess.

Each one taking control of a trunk-like leg, the grate-faced torturer lumbers over to the phone bolted into the wall of the bunker. He/they place a call.

“The sparrow flies at daybreak.”

A wet thick sound like spaghetti being dragged over a linoleum floor echoes from the other side. “Show me.”

The grate-faced man angles the receiver toward the ex-human. An eye extends from the mouthpiece on a thin stalk.

“This is acceptable.”

The grate-faced man knows there’s no release from this place. Even if he/they were to escape from the bunker, where was there to go? Back to the streets of Omaha, to be stared at and taunted by young children? The reconstructed being can feel the utter wrongness of the fused body beneath the skin and the grate. Even if the grate-faced man separates, life will never be simple again.

The eye blinks, snapping the grate-faced man back to attention. “There is another.”

There is always another.

NEVADA

The house always wins. So does the Autonomic SmarTrak DwellingUnit 3.0.

Step inside. Allow the polished servo-mechanisms to lift you up, float you through the air like a luck-kissed cherub. Spin the wheel. Roll the dice. Make merry. Have another scotch. Ante. Raise. Call.

Later, when the lights go dark and the thrill of winning is gone, sink into the luxurious honeycomb of the fully furnished basement. Order some room service. It’s on the house.

In the middle of the night, you wake to find the meat of your legs stuck to the Egyptian cotton sheets. You pull, and there’s a sick tearing sound.

You free yourself and head to the bathroom, but your steps are labored, as if you’re stepping in tar. You pull the light cord and find small bits of sheet nestled in and among the raw muscles on the back of your legs, products of a fusion, a melding

Above you is the unmistakable sound of digestive processes at work. You didn’t notice it before. But now it’s all you can hear.

KENTUCKY

erica-pull4Revival night. The line of sinners snakes like a broken ant trail into the tents pitched on the outskirts of Lexington. Unlike most revival meetings, there is no mention of Christ or God, no complicated hosannas. What there is, is the shredder.

Pastor Dan doesn’t know where the shredder came from. He woke one day in his double-wide trailer to find it sitting at the end of his fold-out cot, one corner of his bed sheet in its gaping maw. Dan leapt from the cot, grabbed a yardstick, poked the shredder, all in one fluid motion.

It continued to chew the sheet, unabated.

Experiments were conducted. Through a series of increasingly bizarre coincidences, Dan discovered that one’s sins could be erased from existence by feeding them into the shredder, allowing one’s deepest shames to scatter at one’s feet like confetti.

He doesn’t charge for use of the shredder. Wouldn’t feel right. The index cards and ballpoint pens to write down the sins, though, they’ll cost you.

A young woman approaches the podium with her infant son in a sling. When the shredder pukes out the remnants of the index card, both sling and child dissolve into thin air. Pastor Dan has to concentrate to remember what was there before, and by the time the next parishioner comes up to the podium, it’s already gone from his mind.

After the services are over, Pastor Dan sits in the green room with a bottle of vodka in his hand. Across from him sits the shredder.

“What are you?”

Of course, there’s no reply. The sin-eating shredder is an inanimate object: it does not feel, it does not love, it does not care about its small amount of regional fame. It doesn’t even acknowledge its frustrated owner. Dan has fed six hundred and twenty-nine scrawled index cards through the shredder’s gold-plated teeth. He’s become a rich man, all thanks to the shredder. It’s not enough. He needs to know.

He places a fingertip into the shredder. The pain is staggering, immense. The white walls of the green room spatter with blood. He bites his tongue to keep from screaming.

“I’ll figure you out,” he says, focusing on the pale yellow light that sits square in the shredder’s control panel. It looks almost like an eye.

He shoves the arm in up to the elbow, then the other one. The shredder almost seems to expand to accept him. There is so much pain that he has forgotten to even register it as such. He has been inside this moment forever, it seems, in the pain of the sin-eater there is no beginning and no end.

Pastor Dan inserts a foot.

Now you see, the shredder says, now you see inside.

When Dan’s agent jimmies open the door two hours later, she finds a foot on the ground and a star-shaped hole in the windowpane. She packs her bag that afternoon and moves to Germany, where things make at least a sliver of sense.

MICHIGAN

From his lair in the furthest reaches of the Upper Peninsula, the mighty Elf Lord defends his realm.

“Come on, Dad. Gimme my Nerf gun back.”

The Elf Lord has no such time for such trivialities. He slings his weapon across his back and, listening to the voices so many people across this nation can hear now, strides down the gravel road to stake his claim of the Lower Regions.

“Mom? I think there’s something wrong with Dad.”

All across the Upper Peninsula, war rages. The Elf Lord, once a lowly insurance salesman named David Wright, hops the fence of his neighbor, the Cleric Prince. When they’d first started this divine mission, there’d been snickers from behind the fists of everyone who roamed the cubicle kingdom of Northeast Insurance, Incorporated. They’d thought the men in the office were playing a new sort of game. A nerd game.

It was not a game.

“Hark!” the Elf Lord bellows, rattling the screen door of the Cleric Prince’s keep. “Dost thou wish to ride thy trusty steeds into yonder village? There is plunder there, and treasure.”

The Cleric Prince’s concubine answers the door. She sighs audibly, breath pluming in the crisp breeze. “Those are the same thing.”

“Vile woman, let me through.”

“Sorry, Gary can’t come out to play today.” She starts to close the door, but the Elf Lord shoves his fist in the jamb.

“Play? This is not a game, wench.”

“He’s not here. I sent him away.” She’d been begging him to get help for years, even before the game started. The Cleric Prince had never been a fully sane man. He’d filled his days with useless projects: resurfacing the blacktop on the driveway until it was perfectly level, organizing his books by smell, optimizing his health by taking all his sleep in the form of catnaps. He had seen no problem with any of this.

Honestly, when he’d started playing the game, the Cleric Prince’s concubine had been glad. At least he was out of the house, with other people. But enough was enough. Better to kick him out than to allow the crazy to rub off on her.

She wonders if she should do something to help the Elf Lord. Even now he stomps and whines, certain that the Cleric Prince is within the walls of the keep, hidden from view.

“Hey,” she says. “You want me to call your wife for you?”

“Temptress, do not vex me.” He spins around suddenly, smacking her in the face with his Styrofoam broadsword.

She grunts, pushing the neon weapon away. “You’re not even using those words right, David.”

By that time, he’s already halfway down the street. She rubs her belly, thick with life, and sheds a tear.

ALASKA

erica-pull5Paranoid Jack’s had quite an adventure, but now it’s nearly over.

He could have lived quite comfortably here in a land called Canada, a place where the Alien Brotherhood League has made only minor inroads on their quest for global domination. Hardly any strangeness here, aside from the occasional sound of crying babies emanating from prairie snowbanks.

As the months pass, the dispatches from home grow more crazed and urgent. Jack can’t stop collecting the American newspaper clippings, pasting them up on the dashboard and windows of his new ride, a fuel-efficient sedan bought at below market cost from a desperate Saskatchewan salesman.

He has to get back. He has to warn people. It’s just his nature. He peels the taped-up report of a man-eating shredder from his rear-view mirror and lights out for the most distant region of his shattered place of origin.

Jack might miss the Delawarean most of all. The little man couldn’t take the cold. Or the sanity.

That makes two of us, he thinks sadly as he guns the sedan’s practical motor as hard as he can.

In Whitehorse, he stops at a diner where the waitress takes pity on him and nestles a few extra strips of grease-flecked bacon onto his plate. She stares blankly when he talks of the aliens, the eyes, all of it.

“Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you heard what’s going on down there?”

“All Americans are crazy,” she says as she fills his mug with Bible-black joe.

Kilometers flip to miles, and now he’s in Alaska. Denali National Park. In the shadow of the great mountain he brings out the clippings and spreads them across his lap.

No link between events, and no reason to believe that the aliens who have been on his tail for the past twenty years of his life are behind it, but he knows they are. He can feel them tear across the entire blighted nation, sparking chaos and seeding madness.

He sleeps fitfully and wakes with the sun. He kills a squirrel and eats it, roasting it over the charred remains of the last of the clippings. As he sucks the marrow from each and every tiny bone, he looks over at the great mountain that towers above him. It’s already beginning to explode, long tendrils of liquid fire reaching toward his grizzled face.

Above him, the great eye winks.

 end_of_story

Erica Satifka
Erica Satifka

Erica L. Satifka’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud WristletQueers Destroy SF!Daily Science Fiction, and Clarkesworld. When not writing, she works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on SF/F writing at Portland Community College. She lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and three needy cats. Visit her online at www.ericasatifka.com.

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Serein, by 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.

This is my sheet ripe with me, this is my mirror, this is my reflection.

I close my sister’s room. I don’t know what she was thinking when she left.

serein-pull1I can pretend, for a while, that I felt her fear of life, her hurt. She said, always, it will be better under water. She would stay in the shower, drain the cylinder cold.

She took my mum’s car when she left, though I suppose she gave it back. The police found it parked under a flyover near the airport, like she’d driven up onto the verge and got out and walked on bleeding feet over broken glass to a pair of wings, to freedom. Other people in my town whispered that of course we’d love to think she got on a plane. There’s no record of her from there. She took her passport, but didn’t buy a ticket.

I married three years after Claire disappeared. And here’s the thing. I have these pictures I hate to look at because no matter how much I smile in them, or how much money Mum and Dad pulled together to help me have the best wedding—the best wedding for their only daughter, their only child—no one can ignore that the photos are ruined. There are empty spaces where my sister should be, strange gaps where elbows don’t meet, where heads cant, where shadows fall in the wrong direction. There are water stains that bubble like a strange mold between the layers of film.

He was a terrible photographer, our Uncle Jay. He’s dead now, but he’s still real. He has a plot, and a nice headstone. Mum goes to visit him now and again.

Cancer is a fucking destroyer, it took my mum’s baby brother away from her, like a slice of her soul was excised.

I know how she feels about that. There are still photos of my sister in my mum’s lounge. I’m here to help her clean. She’s getting on in years, her and dad, but they won’t hire a char, not even to come in one day a week to help. Mum says she’s never needed to hire anyone to do her cleaning for her and it won’t start now.

So I come in, and do it for free while my daughter’s in school.

My face twists. Mum is sleeping, lulled into childlike nap-time by the whine of the vacuum. I’ve stashed it away, and now I’m just faffing really, dusting knickknacks and photos that don’t need dusting. I look at the ostrich feather duster held out like a wand, and wonder if I could summon my sister back. She’s not dead. There’s no proof of that.

The water in the vase of flowers sitting on the mantelpiece is rank, eddies stirring the greening muck, the flower heads sagging, spilling petals. Next to the curling pale fingers of a dead iris, my sister smiles uncertainly from a school portrait. She was wearing glasses, before she got her contact lenses and re-invented herself.

She would have hated this picture, hated knowing our mum kept it, right where visitors could have seen it, and gone, “Is that your Claire, I never, she looks so different now!” which of course no one ever says because visitors never Talk About Claire. They talk about the rain, or who’s doing what with whom. Claire’s name has gone missing from people’s minds.

I only remember it because every night before bed and after I’ve brushed my teeth, I lean in close to the bathroom mirror, until my breath fogs the silver, and write her name with my fingernail. Little scratches through water.

She drowned, people said after.

Where they think she managed that, I’d love to know. Did she walk barefoot (her shoes were left in the car, along with all her luggage—she certainly looked as if she’d packed to travel) for miles along the gray heels of the road, staggering through dusk and dawn, past the city houses, until she found a river wide enough to take her soul.

Fuck you, Claire.

It’s not hard to leave.

It’s hard to stay.

I spit on her photo, and the bubble of saliva slides tragically down her face. Not like a delicate tear, but an unwiped sneeze.

You have made me hate you.

No, no, not hate. I love, I always love, come back, Claire. I didn’t mean it, we won’t be angry, come back. Come back before Mum and Dad join Uncle Jay in the quiet plot, before I am too old to remember your name and write it in water.

When my sister Alison leaves, she closes the door on our mother, asleep, spittle hanging from her half-open mouth. She snores softly, sweetly as a baby. I saw Alison’s baby born. Was there, drifting from water droplet to water droplet, I folded around her when she was still forming bridges between nerve and muscle, growing a liver, learning a heart. I was the sweat on my sister’s forehead, I slid down her back, I pooled in her eyes. I know my sister more intimately than she knows herself.

This is not fear, or cowardice.

 

This is how to drown.

Take one brain bowed under the weight of its own unstoppable thoughts.

Take lungs that cannot stretch wide enough to fill with air. Because water is hard to come back from, because air is difficult, breathe smoke instead. It will give you wrinkles but make you beautiful. You will be a siren in a black-and-white film, your eyes filled with sex and knowledge.

This is power.

You will pack your bags with the things you cannot leave behind.

You will leave them behind at the end anyway, it doesn’t matter.

You will drive in your mother’s car; a fusty dry womb that smells of air-freshener and, faintly, of vomit. It is familiar. You will stick to the seats and roll the window down so you can smoke faster. You will play the same song on repeat and wish you were a child again.

Claire was always disappearing. Mum would give us some instruction on chores and as soon as her back was turned I’d be alone, having to clean our shared room all by myself. I’ll give her this much, at least, she didn’t make much mess if you ignored the bed-wetting.

She liked to be clean, Claire. Not just the endless showers, but she liked to have her world ordered. Her bed straight, her records alphabetized. Her books were packed as neatly as she could get them. She wasn’t all about obsessively vacuuming or folding clothes, though, she could be filthy about some things, our Claire. I think she wanted the world to have a semblance of control, because she knew it was actually chaos.

It still annoyed me; the disappearing. When we were kids, she threw the biggest tantrum ever when Mum paid for us to have lessons at the local pool, so we wouldn’t drown (in the middle of the city, far from water.)

Claire wet her bed, and the room smelled of urine, hot and sweet, even after Mum washed all the bedding; the rumbleslush of the machine, the spurt of soap water spiraling down midnight drains.

In the end Dad made her go to swim lessons. When we went to the pool, she did this trick the moment I blinked. She’d slide under the water and I’d lose her between the wobbly white legs and the rubber heads and the alien goggles.

Later, she would pop up at the far end of the pool like a fat mermaid, and scowl.

Funny joke, right. After all that, she could swim better than any of us. A Natural.

When I was ten I told my mother I would no longer take baths. It was dirty, I told her. I had to shower. She thought I was being a brat again, and I had to throw one of my epic screaming fits, piss myself so that I knew I had control, until Dad told her that letting me shower was better than letting me scream.

It wasn’t that I hated bathing because of the filth, though that was part of it. Lying in warm water filled with flakes of skin and dirt and tiny fallen hairs and all the microscopic misery that attaches itself to human beings.

It was being lost in there, alone, disintegrating with my own debris. I was scared that one day I’d forget how to pull all my million selves back into one me, solid and real. It was better to lose myself in invisible pieces, sluiced away down the shower drain. I could hold my shape there, and just let the water wash out the parts of me I hated.

This is how to become water.

Take one sack of flesh bowed under the weight of its own unstoppable decay.

I learned how to become water before I was born. In Amnio. In water we are made, in water we will trust. I could dissolve and reform my bones, pull them together like sharpening splinters, stitch my molecules together and unpick them. I drifted between shapes. Growing.

When my mother’s water broke, I had to claim my own space before there was nothing left of me.

I spent months curled into my new form, learning solidity. Vernix oiled away, sponged clean, skin revealed, hair black and flat, eyes puffed and swollen. I’d had a fight with the birth canal, that channel shaping my malleable flesh into form, squeezing my head firm, pounding out the air and the water, like a potter molding clay. I only learned to become water again when my mother stopped sitting on the edge of the bath, watching me to make sure I wouldn’t drown. I could lie under the warmth, listening to the boom and rattle of the pipes, the slow drip from the faulty tap and I could remember how to breathe water instead of air, and fill my lungs with a familiar warm salt. I could let go my bladder, and float in that familiar world of Amnio. It wasn’t running away. It was running back.

Day by day I learned to dissolve.

Once, I walked into the bathroom while Claire was supposed to be having a bath. She was ten, I think, and I was sixteen and meant to be going out, tired of waiting and knocking and getting no response. She was a brat, a wild haired, sullen-eyed, bed-wetting, disappearing brat. And I was angry all over again with everything she was. So I shoved the door open, expecting to find Claire lolling in cooling water, her expression mulish.

There was no Claire.

There was only water, dark and strange and smoky with blood and hair.

 

serein-pull2I grew myself back after that, as quickly as I could I knitted myself together.

It had to stop.

It didn’t.

Each slip was harder to come back from. My skin itched to disappear, to fly away spark by spark to join the clouds and rivers, the sea and sweat and tears.

I know where my sister has gone. I can’t say it, but I know it and it is why. Why I write her name in breathmist, and open my mouth to swallow the rain. Why I take long baths until the water around me is icy and my fingers and toes have shriveled and pruned themselves numb. Why I don’t change the stagnant water in my mother’s flowers.

It’s all right, Claire. We love you. Come back.

I fold my soul around Alison’s daughter as she jumps in mud puddles under a sky dry from weeping. I settle in my mother’s weakening bladder, run down her legs, I rinse the sadness from my sister’s skin. From a cloudless sky I pull my molecules from mist so fine no man could see them.

I fall with the dusk on the waiting graves, and try to remember how to put myself together.

 end_of_story

CatCat Hellisen is a South African-born writer of fantasy for adults and children. Her work includes the novel When the Sea is Rising Red and short stories in Apex, F & SF, Something Wicked, and Tor.com. Her latest novel is a fairy tale for the loveless, Beastkeeper.

 

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In the Rustle of Pages, by Cassandra Khaw

“Auntie, are you ready to come home with us?”

pages-pull1Li Jing looks up from the knot of lavender yarn in her hands, knitting needles ceasing their silvery chatter. The old woman smiles, head cocked. There is something subtly cat-like about the motion, a smoothness that belies the lines time has combed into her round face, a light that burns where life has waned.

“I’m sorry?” Li Jing says, voice firmer than one would expect. She fumbles for her hearing aid, finds it in a graveyard of yellowed books and colored fabrics. “What did you say?”

“We want you to live with us, Auntie. So we can take care of you. Make sure you have everything you ever want.”

The guest is a woman, too young by Li Jing’s count, the planes of her cinnamon face virginal, unscarred by wrinkles. She speaks both too loudly and too slowly, Li Jing thinks as she counts the faults in her visitor’s diction. Where consonants should exist, there are clumsy substitutes, ‘d’s where ‘th’s should hold vigil. Li Jing does not correct her, even though the gracelessness appalls. The fugue of youth is trouble enough, she reasons.

“Live with you?” Li Jing says, abrupt, when her thoughts empty enough to allow space for the present. “But this is my home. And — “

“It’s the best solution. And we’ve discussed it for weeks already, talked it over with the whole family.”

The gentleness bites chunks from Li Jing’s patience. It’s a familiar softness, a delicacy of speech reserved only for the invalid or the very young, a lilt that declares its recipient incapable. Arrogance, Li Jing thinks, but again says nothing.

The younger woman, barely a larva of a thing, lowers to her knees, hands piled over Li Jing’s own. “Your husband–we don’t want you to be alone when he — you know.”

Li Jing looks to where her husband lies snoring, already more monument than man, a pleasing arrangement of dark oak and book titles, elegant calligraphy travelling his skin like a road map. Li Jing allows herself a melancholy smile. The ache of loss-to-come is immutable, enormous. But there is pride, too.

In the armoire beside the marital bed sleeps a chronology of her husband’s metamorphosis: scans inventorizing the tiling on the walls of his heart, the stairwells budding in his arteries. For all of the hurt it conjures, Li Jing thinks his metamorphosis beautiful, too.

Before the old woman can structure an answer, the younger unfolds in a waterfall rush of dark, gleaming hair and mournful noises, fist balled against her chest. “Zhang Wei! Where are you? I can’t. I can’t — it’s too much. You talk to her.”

A muscular silhouette obstructs through the doorway, sunlight-limned, statuesque. Shadow gives way to intelligent eyes, a jaw softened by prosperity, and shoulders mausoleum-broad.

“Ah Ma,” Zhang Wei declares as he cuts through the space between them with long strides. He ignores the younger woman. “How are you doing?”

Li Jing raps his arm with her knuckles, a blow too light to offend, but too sharp to ignore. “No need for such wasteful courtesy. I already told you that I’m not leaving your Ah Kong here alone.”

Zhang Wei does not flinch from the assault, only squeezes his features into a mask of repentance. “Sorry, Ah Ma. I know how you feel about this, but you have to trust us. We only have your best interests at heart. We want to move both of you somewhere else, somewhere you can be cared for. I—”

Li Jing interrupts, prim. “We’re fine here. A thaumatotect came last week to check on your grandfather. He says it’s natural for paintings to hurt a little, and the pain should clear once his ribs have adjusted to them. There’s no need for anyone to fuss over us.”

Her grandson and his companion exchange glances like rats in conspiracy. Li Jing’s mouth thickens into a moue. Zhang Wei is the first to slip into a language Li Jing does not recognize, a bubbling of vowels. His woman — girlfriend? Wife? Dalliance? Li Jing recalls only the flippancy of their relationship — responds in kind, her words accompanied by a flicker-dance of small, elegant hands.

It takes heartbeats for Li Jing’s presence to rot into the background, her presence collateral to their fevered conversation. But the old woman is unruffled. Relieved, even. Dialogue never held the same glitter for her as it did for others. She clambers free of her chair and the two do not notice.

Wordless, Li Jing pads to where her husband slumbers. She touches the back of her fingers to his forehead. His skin is cool, rough with a dewing of feldspar. Li Jing’s brows clump. She had expected timber, not stone.

“I don’t think you understand how much good this will do, or what this means for you both.” Zhang Wei’s voice sounds against her musings, deep as the church bell’s eulogy. “We’re not trying to separate you, if that’s what you’re worried about. You’ll be able to visit Ah Kong anytime you wish.”

“Yes, Auntie!” the girl supplies, her voice like glass bells, bright and brittle. “You’ll even be able to pick out his nurse, if you like. And his meals. You won’t have to worry about visiting hours. They’ll have a cot for you. And the rest of the time, you’ll be taken care of by your loving children.”

Li Jing loses her words in a thunder of exasperation. “You don’t understand. He doesn’t want that. I don’t want that. We promised we’ll take care of each other. Always.”

Zhang Wei smiles, cloyingly sympathetic, head dipped in apology. “How will you take care of each other like this? He’s so old, Ah Ma. And so are you. He doesn’t know what he wants. You both — “

The two swap knowing expressions, while Li Jing stares, lips taut with unhappiness.

“What I meant to say is that we’re worried that you might be a little confused,” Zhang Wei continues, spiderweb-soft. “I only want the best for you, Ah Ma.”

Li Jing thins her lips. “What’s best for me is staying with your grandfather.”

“I — All right. I understand. But, hear me out –“

She recognizes argument in the bend of their spines, the tilt of their mouths. Dissatisfaction kindles in her breast but Li Jing does not give voice to it. She knows from experience they won’t relent until she is subdued. So Li Jing nods meekly instead, dispenses ‘maybes’ with shrugs, hoping against reason that indecision will outlast her grandchildren’s persistence. She sighs as they close in on her, allowing the tide of their words to wash over her like foam on a distant shore, carrying away talk of relocation, complex treatments, and futures she stores no interest in.

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pages-pull2Li Jing is unique. Even from infancy, it was clear her skin would never be mantled with marble, and that her eyes would never be replaced by glass, her bones wood. At fifteen, no signage inked itself on her flesh, as it did others’, no portent of architectural occupation.

It complicated her relationships, of course. By the time Li Jing was wise enough to court partnership, city-sickness had become pandemic, so widespread that humanity was forced to leaven it into normalcy. One by one, proponents mushroomed from the carcass of fear, oozing grand ideas: why was this disease so terrible? Did it not provide a concrete immortality?

Consequently, few became willing to stomach a lover whose lifespan could be measured in decades. Death was never easy, but it was infinitely harder when you knew you would never walk the halls of your beloved, would never laze on their moon-drenched balconies.

Li Jing consumed their prejudices without complaint and used the dearth of companionship to build herself other loves: literature, mathematics, the reading of stars, the sleek alley cats that haunted the shadows behind her home. Months became years. In that time, loneliness grew into so much of a cherished companion that Li Jing almost chose the quiet over her husband-to-be.

She was forty when she met round-faced Zhang Yong, who wore the names of her favorite books on his sandstone-pale arms. Forty, and almost too wise to risk her heart. But Zhang Yong had gentle hands, a gentle smile and when he laughed, his voice was like a rustle of pages. Li Jing did not love him immediately. Instead, she learned to do so in increments, brick by brick, until she built her heart a new home.

They married four years after their first encounter, with the discretion that Li Jing that was so enamored of. And for a small eternity, they were happy.

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“Li Jing?” Her husband’s voice is roughened by sleep and the creak of new hinges. “What time is it?”

“Late.” She glances up from her book and dog-ears the page, expression papered with concern. “You missed dinner.”

“I’m sorry.” His contrition makes her ache, its child-like earnestness evoking a pang for when they spoke without needing to keep one eye on caution. “It’s just –“

“I know,” says Li Jing, rising to secure an arm around his side, a hand around his wrist. Together, they lift him, a feat that scrapes their breath into tatters. In recent months, Zhang Yong has grown ponderous, his skeleton weighed with concrete.

But they persevere. Slowly, they migrate to Zhang Yong’s new dining space — a flip-table bolted to the wall beside an overstuffed red chair — and deposit him there. Before she moves to retrieve his meal, Li Jing presses her mouth against her husband’s cheek, impulse-quick, drinking in the skin’s faint warmth. She is possessive of his heat these days, knowing it’ll be gone soon, payment for cold glass and teak, passionless metals.

“So, Zhang Wei came over with his lady friend today –” Li Jing keeps the cadence of her voice breezy, syllables dancing between troubles, too light to be caught between teeth.

“Zhang Wei?”

“Wai Sing’s second son.” Li Jing says, patient. Personal experience has made her accustomed to the fashion with which age makes sieves out of a person’s mind, memory hissing from the gaps like stardust through the slats of dawn. “The one who peed in his pants until he was eight. He grew up very tall.”

She ladles stew into a bowl, ornaments it with sprig of parsley before picking out a quartet of soft, white buns. Feeling wicked, Li Jing appends chocolate pudding to the arrangement. Why not? she thinks savagely. He only has such a short time left.

“He was the one with stained glass eyes?”

Li Jing shakes her head. “No. That was his brother, Zhang Long.”

“Zhang Long.” Her husband repeats, cautious. “Do I — do we have — ?”

“I can check.” Gently, she deposits his dinner on the table, before molding fingers to the gaunt architecture of his face, skin to still-human skin. Li Jing breathes deep.

This is their secret. As though to compensate for the immeasurable emptiness that is to come, the thousand-strong ways her heart will break on routines denied a partner, serendipity provisioned Li Jing with a bizarre gift.

In the beginning, the gift manifested as mere instinct, an aptitude for predicting alterations in her husband’s biology. Over the months, it coalesced into a tool, an ability to edit the topography of his disease.

Though they had initially hoped otherwise, hers was an imperfect talent. Li Jing could not bleach the sickness from him, could only mold its trajectory. With the pragmatism of the old, the two decided they would not despair but would turn disaster into providence. Brick by brick, they would build Zhang Yong, until he could provide for Li Jing in death as he did in life.

“This will sting,” Li Jing warns, the words hatched from habit rather than intent.

Magic stirs in her lungs, motes of flame. She holds them till they become needle points, surgical-sharp, before exhaling. In her mind’s eye, Li Jing sees them perforate Zhang Yong’s skin, tunneling into vein and sinew.

Zhang Yong hisses.

“It’s there in your rib,” Li Jing confirms, walking her fingers from his chin to throat, throat to chest. Her sorcery follows like a puppy. Li Jing flattens a palm over his heart. “Are you sure you want chandeliers? It seems a bit tawdry for a book store.”

He nods, features contorted into a rictus. “It will bring you rich customers.”

“The rich don’t read.”

Zhang Yong mimed a scowl. “They do, if they know what’s good for them. The wise build their businesses on the spine of books.”

Li Jing’s mouth quirks and she cups the back of his neck with her other hand. Lips smooth against the creased flesh of his forehead. In the beginning, the two had considered divulging Li Jing’s new endowment to their children, but discarded the idea. She was too old, and it was too little to warrant the torrent of questions to follow. And who knew where gossip would drag the revelation, which scientist might come demanding access the contents of Li Jing’s flesh? “A poet to the end, aren’t we?”

“Can’t risk losing you to a young man yet.”

Yet. The word catches Li Jing off-guard, a noose that bites deep. Preparation is not panacea, only armor to help weather sorrow. Regardless of Li Jing’s efforts, reminders of her husband’s mortality still cut like razors, dividing reason from self, leaving only heart-flesh that is raw and red.

She averts her face but she is not quick enough. The humor in Zhang Yong’s gaze, innocent in its frankness, dies at the anguish that flits through hers.

“I’m so sorry, darling. I’m –“

“It’s okay.” Li Jing cannot endure his grief, not when she already has so much of her own to balance. “Eat your dinner. I will clean up.”

Their eyes do not meet for fear of what might have pooled them, salt in old wounds. Li Jing bows her head and stalks peace through a forest of unwashed dishes, through the fleeting rhythms of domesticity.

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“This is…slightly unexpected,” Li Jing tells the procession at her door, caution beating hummingbird wings in her chest.

They are all here, she thinks. The entire clan. Her eyes find relatives memory had previously transformed into vague blots of words and actions, grandnieces and grandchildren grown sapling-sleek. Li Jing’s gaze maps the bleakness of their attire, stark monochrome complemented by fisted hands and dour expressions. Wariness thickens into a weight.

“Everyone’s here to see Ah Kong.” Zhang Wei stands in the vanguard, comforting in his breadth. “And you, of course.”

“He’s not dead.” The statement is razored. A warning. Li Jing pushes on the door, only to locate Zhang Wei’s foot in the split. “You don’t have to come en masse just yet. One at a time. And today is not a good day. He’s tired and so am I.”

“Ah Ma. Please.”

Li Jing glances over the horizon of her shoulder, finds Zhang Yong’s silhouette in the antechamber to their bedroom. She sighs. Her husband had always been the disciplinarian, she the tender heart of their family. Zhang Wei’s desperation peels back her shell, leaves only grudging assent.

“Only if you promise to keep the children quiet.”

The stream of guests is endless, overwhelming, coiling through the house like snakes. Li Jing loses herself in the cadence of their arrivals, oscillating from kitchen to seating areas, moving cups of tea and day-old pastries. Eventually, she allows her children and her grandchildren to assist her. Under her supervision, they concoct cookies, mugs of hot chocolate, delicate things to nibble upon between anecdotes.

The hours pass.

Suspicion melts into an elegiac contentment, even as Li Jing watches Zhang Yong come alive under the constant attention. It has been months since his eyes glittered so brightly. Only once, at some indistinct point in the afternoon, does she feel a whine of irrational terror, a worry that they might be thieving from a diminishing supply. That when they leave, they leave her with only a husk of a husband, hollowed of humanity.

But her panic is fleeting, replaced by guilt. That’s not how people work, Li Jing tells herself, pushing aside the warning bells that clang and dance in the back of her head.

The hours continue their patient march.

“Where do you keep Ah Kong’s things?”

Li Jing jolts her head up.

Most of the guests have departed, leaving Zhang Wei and his woman, an older couple that Li Jing does not recognize and their brood of three, a niece she barely remembers. Faces without names, perambulating through a home suddenly two sizes too small.

“Why?” It is the only word that she can manage.

“They’re expecting him at the home.”

“The home?” Li Jing repeats, throat parched. “What home?”

“There’s a nursing home at the corner of the city,” Zhang Wei replies, his eyes roving the room, unwilling to meet Li Jing’s. “It’s a good place. Great, in fact. Highest-rated in the whole city. They even have a dedicated zoning area for patients. Beautiful, beautiful place. Well-attended. Grandpa will look splendid there.”

Li Jing’s voice is child-soft, child-meek. “But we decided he would stay here. Besides, our neighborhood needs a book store.”

“What if he becomes a library instead? You hardly have the space for that.”

He won’t, Li Jing thinks. I’ve seen the blueprints tattooed on his stomach. I’ve seen the cache of books in his liver, the oaken shelving of his ribs, the old-fashioned cash register nursed in his left lung.

“That’s not the point,” Li Jing tells her grandchild, hands convulsing.

“No,” Zhang Wei agrees, stepping forward to arrest her shoulders with broad palms. “The point is we’re trying to do what is best for you. I promise you. It will be fine. You need to believe me. Come, Ah Ma. We’ve even organized a rotation system. You’ll have rooms with all of us and live with each family a week at a time.”

“No,” Li Jing says, trying to wrestle away. But Zhang Wei’s grip is as inexorable as death’s advances. “No. I’m not going with you.”

“It’d be fine.” Zhang Wei sighs, voice now feathered with a twinge of frustration. “Besides. Look. Ah Kong agreed.”

He unfurls a cream-colored parchment, its tail branded with Zhang Yong’s jagged signature.

“You tricked him.”

“Be reasonable, Ah Ma. Why would I do that?”

“He’s old. You — I didn’t see him reading that. He didn’t talk to me about it and we always, always discuss contracts together. What did you do? What did you do?” Li Jing’s voice crests into a shout, red-stained with fury. She squeezes her eyes shut. Her veins feel stretched like power cords, crackling.

“I told him what he needed to know. Anyway, it’s all decided. Ah Ma, please. Don’t make this difficult.”

No.

Li Jing closes a fist, feels her fingers constrict around her dread, around the panic that clogs her lungs and her thoughts and her throat. Feels her grip choke earth and stone, walls and wood.

And something breaks.

You are not taking away my husband! Li Jing startles at the scream, for it is almost hers. It emanates from every dimension, avalanche-loud, incendiary. The old woman opens her eyes and marvels as the room curls around her like a loyal serpent, pillars and rafters curving liked the bowed backs of religious supplicants.

“Get out.” She snarls between sobs. “Get out and leave us. Get out and take away all of your presumptions, your rotations, your, your — get out.”

When her family hesitates, Li Jing answers with a ripple of the floor, spears of cherrywood coursing forward like hounds on the hunt. It takes a heartbeat for epiphany to strike, but the other occupants of her bloodline soon flee in a stampede of footsteps and wails.

“Dear.”

pages-pull3The house throbs in Li Jing’s blood. She can feel her husband’s heartbeat slackening, cooling to rock, to the ticking of a grandfather clock. In all the clamor, she had lost track of her husband’s condition.

“I’m here.” Li Jing stumbles to Zhang Yong’s side, sinks to her knees. Her embrace is ferocious. “I’m here, I’m here. I’m here.”

“I’m afraid.”

Too soon, too soon, too soon. The thought presses salt into the membrane of her eyes. She thought they had more time together, more weeks. This is too soon.

What she says instead is:

“I’m here.”

She will tell him that a thousand times if she has to. Until her words become a wall between him and the dark. “And it will be all right. And when I die, I’ll have them put my bones in your garden. We’ll be together always.”

Zhang Yong says nothing, only tenses his hold on her hand.

“I’m here. Don’t worry,” Li Jing repeats softly, as though the statement was an invocation against grief.

She is still whispering to him when the light bleeds from his eyes, when his skin grays to stone, when her heart disintegrates to ash.

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A day passes.

Li Jing’s family return. Instead of her cottage, they discover a gray cube twenty feet high, smooth and featureless as an egg. There are no windows, no exits. They wait for a time, believing Li Jing will eventually emerge. Even the unnatural must eat.

But she does not.

A week flits by.

Two weeks.

Three.

By the end of the twenty-first sunset, her family surrenders its pursuit. Li Jing and her husband are pronounced deceased, their epitaphs a flurry of tsking noises.

By the end of the year, Li Jing and her husband are consigned to myth and drunken discussion, legends without substance, ghosts to be studied without the frame of truth.

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If you promise not to be disruptive, you may visit the store.
— Li Jing

Li Jing signs the last letter and sighs. Her fingers are brocaded with ink, her smile with exhaustion. A part of her aches for the liberty of isolation. It would be simpler than explaining everything that had transpired. So much easier than instructing herself not to loathe Zhang Wei for his intent, to forgive his motivation if not his actions.

But that is not what Zhang Yong would have desired.

Li Jing sips tea from a cup made from her husband’s bones, its golden heat suffusing the ivory with something almost like life. Her eyes wander the ribs of her new domicile. The store is beautiful, lush with books and paintings like photographs, conjured flawless from history. When she closes her eyes, Li Jing can see her family exploring the space, investigating cabinet and bookshelf, stove and garden. Briefly, she wonders how Zhang Wei will take to the statuette of him, marble-skinned and pissing fresh water into a horse-shoe shaped pond.

Tomorrow, she decides, she will send out the letters and court her family’s questions.

Tonight, it is tea and reading and learning the patterns of this unfamiliar silence, which sit as awkwardly as new lovers. Nothing will ever replace the way Zhang Yong’s presence curled around hers, jigsaw-snug. There will never be a salve for the gasping loneliness she experiences each morning when she awakens and, in that purgatory between sleep and awareness, forgets why his side of the bed is unfilled.

But she will survive, will rebuild her existence, brick by brick, around the absence. Li Jing has a lifetime of memories in her foundations. It will never be perfect again, but it will be, someday, enough.

Li Jing splays her book, begins to read. And in the quiet, the rustle of pages sounds like the chuckle of love departed but never forgotten.

end_of_story

cassandra

 

Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for small Singaporean game micropublisher Ysbryd, and the writer for indie puzzle game Perlinoid. She’s also writing an Interactive Fiction novel for Choice of Games, freelancing for a variety of tech outlets, and blankly trying to figure out where to cram in more short story writing. Cassandra can be found at http://www.twitter.com/casskhaw where she tweets like a fiend.

 

 

 

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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.

Tell me that story, about how once we all had everything we wanted and never lost anything, about how once we slept and dreamed and sometimes we even slept without dreaming, total sleep that wrapped around our minds like a blanket and lulled and coaxed and woke just as softly, turning and sliding an arm around the waist of whoever happened to be beside you.

Tell me the story about lazy Sundays, about dinner at eight, about dressing like dolls and music that wound around us and kept out the world.

Tell me the story about how once there was cold, and snow, and all sound muffled and the world still, and a single one of those laughing birds sang tentative songs that suggested a long journey, a warmer climate, a finite amount of deprivation that only made the blooming of the world sweeter and more welcome.

Tell me about the times before the fires.

When you have told me that story, tell me the story about the time when we cared about false lives, little story lives within other stories, when we had time for such diversions, when we had the heart to care. Tell me about the shifting of flat light and faces and their trials and tribulations, how we suffered vicariously through them because their suffering made the beginnings of our own more bearable. Tell me about what it was like to grow up as an entire planet, to come to understand in our walled garden what everyone else already knew: that we were our own little diverting stories and that not all stories have happy endings. You and I both know they don’t, but tell me about a time when we were still children, and ignorant, and we ran and played and didn’t think about dying.

come-pull1Sit down beside me in the dust and tell me stories of empire. Tell me stories of glory in war before the war came home. Tell me stories of wars in plays of light, rainbow light without the rain, and tell me all about how exciting it was and how we couldn’t wait to see what happened next, all make-believe at being brave, until something else came along and stole our attention away. Tell me the story about how we really didn’t think too much about it until those awkward family holidays, until looking without looking and then looking away, at scars and half a limb and perfect eyes that still stared and hated us for looking back. Tell me about how no one said anything. Tell me about that guilty silence, and about how we all felt like we were being jerked out of a dream and it was all our fault for having it in the first place.

Tell me stories about the first city falling, the running and the screams, blood-foam and trampling and how we watched it from so far away, so we still felt safe, mostly, but tell me then after that about how the helicopter hit the side of the building and bloomed fire, and then the tanks, and tell me about roadblocks and gunshots and how we didn’t know what had been done so we didn’t know how to keep it from happening to us.

On second thought, no, don’t tell me. I don’t like this story.

But I don’t remember so I have to ask; won’t you hold my hand and tell me about the highway and the curve of the mountain’s back and the crystals of ice in the sky, a frozen rainbow like light that didn’t fall but flew. Tell me about how our hands got so cold they were red and hurting, how we put them wet on each other’s necks and screamed at the contrast.

Tell me about the times before all the houses washed away and you shot a man for a bottle of water, in the middle of a flood you did that, and I laughed because it was so funny how it made no sense but it made all the sense it needed to.

come-pull2And then, once you’ve told me all of that, you can tell me about the hundreds of people on the roads, hundreds of thousands with bags and packs, with eyes like pits with little lanterns at their bottoms, and you can tell me about useless cell phones dropped and crunching underfoot like autumn leaves. You can tell me about when we had autumn leaves. You can tell me about fields of corn, green and gold, rough leaves that could scratch when they touched you in just the right way. Before all those fields were burning.

You can tell me stories about the dreams I used to have, sleeping curled against you in crude parodies of how we used to do, satire that never set anyone free but which still cut like knives. You can tell me about my dreams of wanting and comfort and plenty, of return, which you always said were pointless, when you told me to stop having them and I told you they were all I had, because then I felt like I didn’t even have you anymore. You can tell me about the flat of your hand and my face and the moment when the two came together. You can tell me about the audacity of eyes devoid of the proper tears. You can tell me about the opening of a frozen space in time, a broken instant that marked the end of everything that came before and everything that came after. You can tell me stories about the real end of a real world.

But you can also tell me stories about everything before that spike of temporal ice. Please tell me stories about back when I had no idea what it looked like when a pregnant woman died. Tell me about when I didn’t know what it looked like when a dog ate a child half-submerged in mud.

Tell me about the times before the camps, before the camps also burned, when we had beds, when we had sheets and their softness, and breezes that smelled like living and air. Tell me about the times before we got our food and our water from men and women in helmets, guns like pointing fingers and so angry, and at what? Can you tell me what they were so angry about? Tell me about when there was a time where no one told us what to do.

Tell me about the times before the stars were so bright.

Tell me about the times before the sun cracked and blackened skin, raised blisters and burst them. Tell me about a kind sun, a sun with which we could have love affairs. A sun we would travel thousands of miles to lie in, to stretch out in like cats, letting it touch every inch of us.

Tell me stories about blue.

Tell me stories about maps, about the discovery of terrain, about the luxury of taking our time. Tell me stories about adventures, about the joy of fine little shivers of imagined danger, about heights and sharp drop-offs that enticed us but which we never had to go near.

After that, tell me a story about the survival of how selfish we were. About how first it made us happy and then later it kept us alive.

But tell me about the first one.

Omit the latter, if you can.

Tell me the story about how that one time you said something funny, and it didn’t matter what it was because it was funny, and I laughed, and you laughed, and no one cared that we were laughing and no one yelled to shut up or hit to make it so, and you put a hand on my belly and said soon, very soon now, and I believed in soon as a concept. Tell me a story about when soon wasn’t something to fear.

Tell me a story about when each second wasn’t a needle’s stab.

Tell me about when there were unbroken windows, about clear reflections, and faces you wanted to see, could admire, could improve. Tell me about polish and painted lips, and watching with half a smile, turning and moving for the sheer pleasure of seeing it so.

Lean against me and touch each of my fingers, one by one—the ones I have left, and the places where the lost ones aren’t anymore—and tell me about before all the stealing, before the smashed storefronts, before we stopped standing in line for needless things.

Tell me a story about all the pretty lies.

Tell me a fairy story, a story with heroes. Tell me a story where virtue equals salvation. Tell me a story about a world where that matters. Tell me a story about being kind, not being weak and getting fucked over every time.

Tell me a story about a time that never happened, a thing we never did, like sharing what we had with the hungry-eyed people, the lantern-eyed people, looking at us like they’d kill us and take it all but then there was the gun so they never did. Tell me a story where we save people and they love us and we smile, yes, we did that and we were good. Tell me a story about how we might be good.

Tell me a story about back when we could be good. When we could pretend. Tell me a story about when never meant something more than until.

Tell me a story about when meat meant just animals.

Tell me a story about when you were whole.

Tell me a story about when there were still things I wouldn’t do.

come-pull3Please tell me a story about a time when this wasn’t happening, when I wasn’t crouching here by this fire and looking at you, touching all the places where you used to be, my belly empty and my head empty and all my memories running out of me like tears. Give them back to me, every one. I’m begging you, open your mouth and open your eyes and tell me about a time before the knife, before no choices, before being alone and starving and terrified and so numb that terror no longer matters, about no more lights but the stars, tell me about those pretty falling rainbows so I can look at them and not at you while I do what I have to do.

A story about the living taste of you, and about my mouth and your mouth and being consumed, and how greedy we were with each other. A taste that is not this taste and a greed that is not this awful, clawing thing twisting my gut into a devouring maw. An unkind thing. Less than you deserve and so much more than I do. Tell me about when I lived with you and not on you, not on your flesh and on your blood, and both so cold.

Tell me a story.

I need you to tell me a story so I can remember that this is not all there is, parting skin and no fat left and stringy muscle and thin blood, like water, in which I see no light at all. I need you to tell me a story so I don’t die here, die and just keep moving anyway, slow and even all the way to the unhappy end.

I need you to tell me a story that isn’t thicker blood in the dirt and loss that reaches into the heart and claws it out of your body. I need you to tell me a story about life and first breaths and cries that mean a future.

Tell me a story that isn’t this story. I need you to tell it to me like stories still matter. Like they’re more than whispers that die when the fire starts roaring.

I need you to tell me a story so I can put it in me and carry it with me, my own little lantern in the pit of myself, wavering and flickering but still lit, rainbows hiding inside it, on into the darkness without you. Tell me. Tell me all of it, to my teeth and tongue and throat.

Tell it to my belly, my heart. Tell me and I swear I’ll believe you.

Oh my best beloved, tell me the story and I’ll believe in the light again.

fin

 

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, among other places. They are also responsible for the novels Line and Orbit (cowritten with Lisa Soem) and the Casting the Bones trilogy. They unfortunately live just outside Washington DC in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband. sunny
Shimmer #24 | Support Shimmer and Subscribe

You Can Do It Again, by Michael Ian Bell

I come up again at the bodega on 189th and Amsterdam. When the vertigo and nausea pass, the shimmering forms resolve into bodies and storefronts. Trash bags are piled enormous in the street and I stare transfixed, one hand on the doorframe, steadying myself. In my other hand is a cola, cold like ice. I put it against my forehead and it shocks me into the moment. Every time is the same but it never gets so I expect it.

again-pull1As my head clears, I can feel the heat of the summer air. Sweat trickles down and drips from my chin. Sun hot like a furnace. Blacktop steaming all around me.

This is it, I think. This is the last time you’re gonna see Cisco.

And then Rafi is there, pushing me into the street. Sun splashing into my eyes, all I can see is the gaping chasm where his canine was knocked out two weeks previous. “Vamos!” he says, smiling wide, and we start heading downtown. In my mouth the cola stings but a cooling sensation spreads in my stomach.

When we cross into CastleTown, I see the car in the distance. My heart races. The air is hot but a breeze comes off the river, a breath of air that shuffles past us like a ghost. On the corner of Cabrini we see the red Ford in a thick film of dust. The window rolls down and Rafi reaches inside. “Oye, Francisco,” he calls. “Give us a ride!”

But Francisco looks past his shoulder and into my eyes, lowering his sunglasses. I put my hands on the hot metal, lean in. An unspoken thought passes between us, an expression I’ve seen a thousand times, but the old translations don’t fit.

I’ll be late for dinner.

Or: Keep a lookout for dad tonight.

Or: Stay out of trouble until I get back.

But there’s something new that my twelve-year-old eyes would never catch. I meet my brother’s gaze and smile. I feel the warmth of his hand as he reaches out and closes his fingers on mine, a warmth that spreads into my torso, that fills me completely. Inside there’s a love that is pure and genuine. If I could capture that love and seal it in a box, I think. If I could hold onto this moment, hold it in my hand like I hold that grimy pill bottle. If there were no bottle and no pills but only this moment now and forever.

The scene freezes like a photograph. The car’s leather interior, forgotten soda cans on vinyl floor mats. The sun igniting every surface inside and out. A total absence of sound, and far off the smell of something on fire. The look on Cisco’s face, the way his eyes shone. The message contained therein. I file away the details, even though I’ll be back. I’ll stand here again and grip the doorframe and fight and thrash and scream inside. I’ll muster every ounce of energy just to open my mouth and tell him I love him. Tell him to wait, that he doesn’t have to leave, at least to take me with him.

The picture fades and the vertigo returns. But I’ll be back.

As the scene fades, I repeat it like a mantra. I’ll be back here again. I’ll be back.

Some memories float to the surface no matter what; try as you might, that’s just where you come up. Redo’s like that sometimes.

Pale blue sky filters in through the blinds and dust motes hover in illuminated pockets of air. Parallel bars of sun fall across the misshapen couch and the surface of the coffee table, highlighting ashtrays overloading and empty pill bottles marked only with the black felt-tip outline of a clock. I push the pill bottles around with an exploratory finger. They fall soundless across the trash piles and onto the carpet. I rub the heel of my palm across my face and stretch, pull myself up off the recliner and onto uncertain legs.

In the distance, a single siren sings the tale of criminal activity, somewhere deep within the bowels of the barrio.

I move into the kitchenette, where the analog clock reads 7:43. The air is thick with the humidity of another autumn morning. The flat thwack of a basketball and the shrieks of small children rise from some unseen but nearby source.

The cisterns are full again on the makeshift balcony, and I pull them in through the window, a three-gallon bucket and two smaller plastic jugs with the tops cut off. I wash my face in the bathroom with meager handfuls of rainwater. In the mirror, familiar eyes look back at me. My hair is long and greasy and stubble clings to my cheeks and neck. I rub a hand down my chin. “This is reality, Marco. This is you.”

But I feel ancient and the face in the mirror is not that of a 24-year-old. My eyes are bloodshot, dark bags hanging beneath. This is you, Marco.

In the medicine cabinet is another bottle containing six flat disc-shaped pills. I open the door with shaking hands and count the thin pills twice to be sure.

Johnny is sitting at the counter of El Conde Steakhouse when I arrive thirty-two minutes later. He rolls his eyes when he sees me, like he was getting tired of looking at his watch.

“Café,” I tell the woman. “Solo.”

She shakes her head without looking up, points at a crumpled piece of paper tacked to the wall. NO COFFE, it reads. COKE.

I look at Johnny’s cup and he just nods. The woman puts down a saucer and cup and pours from a two-liter bottle.

“My head feels like a fucking steamroller, man,” I tell Johnny.

He pushes his cup toward the woman and she refills it. “Yea yea, I’ve heard that one before. You want some eggs?”

I shake my head. “So did you talk to Rafi?” I ask. “What does he say?”

Johnny snorts and gazes past tinted windows and into the street beyond. “Get it through your head, hombre. No one talks to Rafi.”

“But you were gonna see him, yea?”

Johnny shakes his head. “Man, forget it. Just keep doing what you do. Rafi don’t care who or what you’re looking for. He plays one game only. Speaking of…”

I reach into my back pocket and pull out a brick-sized envelope. Johnny feels the weight, takes a smaller envelope from his jacket and slides it across the counter. From the shape and size I can tell it contains three bottles. I slide it back.

“I told you I can’t,” I say.

“I heard what you said. But you said it before.” He puts a twenty on the counter, stands and unzips his jacket. “And I don’t believe you.”

I take a deep breath and put my hand on the envelope. He claps a hand on my shoulder and leans down to whisper in my ear. “Besides hombre, we need you. Just one last time.”

I sit there unmoving until long after he’s gone.

Just one last time.

Then I’m out on the corner again, Cabrini and 187th, smoke seeping out from between my lips and swirling around my head. Eyes on the street where it disappears in the distance, waiting for the red Ford to pull around the corner like it did for the last time twelve long years ago. I watch through three cigarettes, amped up on cola. The buildings are bombed-out castles, shattered concrete and white brick, graffiti both faded and new. Occupied now by vermin and squatters, restored only to their 1% glory in dreams and in time-bumps. I slip my hand into my pocket and close it around the envelope. Three pill bottles.

Back home, the first thing I do is pull the blinds in the living room. Sunlight pours in, warming the mildewed furniture. I strip down to boxers and sit on the sofa. On the coffee table beneath crumpled hamburger wrappers, the journal waits, its pages filled with dates and bullet points. July 12, 2002, it reads at the top of the latest page. And “the last time” and nothing else. Several more journals lie on the bookshelf, identical entries too many to count.

Next to the journal, the new pill bottles are laid out before me. Forty discs per bottle. One hundred and twenty time-bumps. I stare at them thoughtfully, calculating the time it will take to turn the bottles into stacks of fives and tens. But the math makes my head hurt and I go to the medicine cabinet for relief.

Two aspirin, check. I reach for the bottle with six pills lying inside and bring it back with me. I place it next to the full bottles and regard them for a while. Then I’m slipping a disc onto my tongue. There will be time to hit the streets later. Right now all I want is him.

I sink into the Redo. Window down, one hand on the wheel, Cisco smiles and puts his hand on mine.

We’re only eleven years old the first time we get high. As the scene resolves, I can feel the swimming sensation in my head, the slowed-down feel of time passing us by. The giggling evoked by every word, every look.

We pass the joint tentatively, Johnny and Luis and Rafi and me, up in the Cellblocks. That was Johnny’s word for the apartment complex, cinder-block walls stacked high and spread with tiny windows sporting heavy iron bars. We didn’t know then what prison would look like, nor that we’d find out soon enough. All we knew was that Rafi’s place was fair game at any time of day. His mom was always out working some job. He never mentioned a dad and we never asked.

Francisco is seventeen years old, and he knows where to find me. I haven’t aged-out, so the calls from school haven’t stopped coming yet. This is the day he picks up the phone when the call comes in. He knows instantly where I am. I was too young to realize what would happen next, too foolish. How could I know he would find us like this?

I try to push myself out of the Redo. I try to bring on another memory. I try to toss the joint, to leave the apartment. I try to warn the boys what’s coming. I try for the life of me to change the past. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s possible. I can feel that I’m close.

But there’s a pounding on the door.

And then his voice. My throat constricts.

And then he’s inside and his eyes are wide with fury. Or is it fear?

He’s speaking, yelling, but I’m not hearing the words. My head is reeling with the mortal terror of my eleven years. And then he’s slapping me. Hard. Across the face and back again. The joint flies to god-knows-where. Johnny and Luis and Rafi have vanished. Francisco has my shirt balled up in one shaking fist.

This is the first time he ever hits me. And the last.

It knocks me right out of the Redo and into the moment. When I come to, a storm is raging and the windows still open. My face is wet with rainwater.

That spring morning of ’01 was the first time we got high, but it wasn’t the last. We fell into a routine in the next two years, and by the summer of ’06 we were slinging. I was a man now at sixteen and my one and only plan for September was to not go back to school. I’d be a junior with two more years ahead and prospects uncertain thereafter. There was never a good reason before and I knew it wouldn’t present itself now.

Johnny got us started on the Redo in June of that year. The pot was no longer enough, and the drink wasn’t good for anything but getting into fights. Johnny wanted something more important. Something with significance. But I knew then it wasn’t about the time-bumps, just as the pot had never been about getting high. They weren’t in it for the exploration. They were in it for the game. They were in it for the money.

When Johnny went to prison that first time, Rafi disappeared for two long years. He never visited once. Johnny was too laid-back to care. He lifted in the yard and played poker with the inmates. Said the place was a daycare center, only the nannies were your dealers and they didn’t give a damn what you did, as long as no one got hurt. He got hurt continuously those first three months. It’s normal, he’d tell me, black eyes and fat lips during visiting hours. Did you bring me anything? But the smile he gave me said he never expected I would. Take a break, he told me then, every time. Do something fun. See the world or get a nice girl. But I didn’t want a girl and I sure didn’t find much worth seeing out there.

I was a heavy user by the time they put him away. I wouldn’t bring dope to the prison, but I did anything I could to keep myself in the discs. That was when Luis got me into my routine. They say adulthood starts when you settle into that groove. When each day carries purpose, that significance that takes you to the end of your life. You find your calling; the future comes into focus. You make a plan and you take care of business.

I focused on Redo. And I took care of business, all right. Luis brought me into sales and when Rafi came back I was a street mule. Rafi was some big-time lieutenant to the “boys upstairs.” I couldn’t even see him if I wanted. Luis dropped off the package and I took it to the streets. I sold five bottles a week back then with a ten percent cut. I turned around and poured it into one more bottle. Forty flat discs and the black felt clock on the cap.

again-pull2That was when I settled into my routine, started the journals. It was an easy life and I wasn’t feeling the side effects back then. We were young and we were reckless. Who knew what it did in the long-term, going back to those places again and again? I didn’t care, I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was too focused on the past. July 12, 2002: that corner in CastleTown.

The last time.

Soon, one day becomes the next. The transitions smooth, today dissolves into tomorrow like a disc dissolving on the tongue.

I come up again and the sting of winter descends. Pellets of ice on my face, sliding into my jacket and melting on my neck. My hand in his, strong grip, supportive. Like you could feel the love contained therein. I look up to gaze at him. He is fully twice my size. That smile. That wink. “Come on, big man,” he says.

Neither of us are big but it doesn’t matter. He’s twelve but he looks like a man already. Distantly, I hear myself thinking: That’s how old you will be the last time you see him. But at twelve I was never a man. When were you ever?

He pulls me forward, gently. It’s the worst storm in years, they’re saying. Fur coats and shiny shoes pass here and there, white faces to match the whiteness in the air. And we the dark ones, our jackets too thin, our sneakers wet and frozen. Each building like a castle, with curious figures standing sentinel in windows eight and ten and fourteen stories high. I wanted to know which room the kings and queens slept in back then. And Francisco would laugh and point at various windows.

“Who else lives in a castle?” he asks, playing along. I’m too young to know where we are, to know that it’s a neighborhood on the other side of Broadway. To me it’s just CastleTown. That’s all it ever would be.

“Princes,” I tell him. “The Pope.”

He laughs again. It fills me with warmth. In twenty-four hours the water mains below the street will burst and destroy seventeen subterranean power converters. The Heights will go dark, the castles reduced to the same frigid, poorly lit homes of our neighborhood. But tonight all is twinkling and bright and beautiful.

The scene shifts. My head swims. When the picture resolves all is darkness and chaos. I feel my body rocking. I feel my mind reeling. The thoughts that form make no sense; I’m not thinking in words. I’m thinking in terror.

The bedroom door is shut but the light seeps in from the hallway, falls across the threadbare carpet, paints a line up over the tiny bed, over the animals arranged neatly along the headboard.

The floors rumble. Cisco is holding my four year old body, rocking me. The shouts and shrieks are muffled by his chest, his arms. He shushes me, whispering quietly. It’s okay, he’s saying over and over again. It’s okay.

I’m crying. The tears are wet on my face and his shirt. The voices get louder, the pounding harder. They’re upstairs now, in the hallway. My breath catches in my throat and I hear a thought forming. I’m saying no. No no no no no.

A door slams. The screams end. In the street a car peels away.

After a time Francisco lays me down and smooths the hair down on my head. Kisses me and tells me it’s okay now, it’s okay. Stay here and I’ll be right back. I grip his hand for a moment but then relax. Because I know he’ll be back. He’ll be right back.

Two doors open. Across the hall I hear him whispering. And as my breath slows, I hear her crying and sniffling. The last thing I recall is his arms wrapped around me, his breath on my neck.

My head begins to spin.

The water jugs on the balcony are empty and the sky is clear when I wake up. The evening storms come only sporadically as November draws to a close. I make a mental note to stock up on water. Then I think better of it and write it in crayon on the kitchen counter.

In the fridge are two liters of bottled rainwater, warm. I upend one to nearly empty, swallowing greedily, lean over the sink, pour the rest of the bottle over my head. The AC still works but without the coolant it only pushes around thick, moistened air. All the same, the sun pulls down the temperature as it drops below the horizon. Satisfied, I dress and slip a bottle with fifteen time-bumps into my pocket. Ambitious, but not impossible to unload in one trip.

I head South on Amsterdam and West along 181st. On the corner of Broadway, the theater advertises movies that are coming soon but will never arrive. Someone has pulled the block letters down so all that remains is the word “SOON” in thick black print. Ready when you are, I say to myself.

Across the street, McDonald’s is selling the cheapest burger in the six boroughs. The sun casts a pinkish hue against the line queuing up at the walk-thru window. Bums and well-to-dos stand together amicably enough. A man in black converse and a pin-stripe suit is telling a story of woe to whoever will listen. I keep walking.

CastleTown is still the best place to unload the discs, even after the market crash. Show me a man with something to lose, Luis always said, and I’ll show you a buyer. Why do you think they live in them castles? Why do you think they have all that stuff? It’s cause something’s missing, hermano.

I unload twelve bumps in four hours, sliding down Cabrini with my hands in my pockets, leaning into passersby and whispering, “You can do it again.” One of them calls the cops I guess, because Banks pulls up around one o’clock with his lights flashing. He takes me home and says he’ll look the other way, but this is the last time.

The last time, I think. Yea right it is.

And he’s doing me a favor getting rid of this shit. He fishes the pill bottle out of my pocket and gives it a shake. Frowns a little, like he’s disappointed. But in me or the take, I don’t really know.

Don’t let me catch you on the West Side again, he says. And he slinks off into the night, sans headlights, a white and blue shadow on wheels.

The last time I did a turn up-county, Banks was pushing papers and I was just some no-name kid from the barrio. He did my fingerprints and looked at me sideways, disapproving, telling me what the next twenty years of my life would be like.

“Sure, you’ll do a month in the county before they turn you loose. And then what? Next time you’re carrying weight and packing heat, and then you’ll do a decade in state prison.” He clapped his hands together one-two. “But more likely the deal goes sideways and we’re scraping you off the corner and into a body-bag.”

I laughed because I was seventeen and I knew it all. They wouldn’t keep me a week ’cause I was underage, and after all, I was only carrying a couple of discs. Back then, the boys in blue hardly knew what to make of Redo. Another designer party drug, they thought. Uppers or downers, it didn’t matter. It was all the same to them. Didn’t take long for half the force to get hooked.

I cleaned up my act; I took more precautions. I didn’t move as many discs, but back in those days the Heights were flooded anyway. It got so everyone you saw was either looking for a time-bump or carrying, and most of them were Rafi’s boys or would be soon. He had the Heights locked up in the first few years after Redo hit the streets.

Every once in a while you get a dope-fiend or a speed-freak. But that’s less and less frequent these days. And no one carries that stuff anymore, so they won’t be asking for long. Why bother with a simulated high when you could have a real one, guaranteed and straight from your own past?

Do it again, I whisper as I shuffle past bloodshot eyes and shaking hands. Fort Tryon’s gone to shit in the autumn storms, the torrents cutting dark rivulets into the mud and pushing rocks and leaves across every path and into every sewer grate. But it doesn’t hurt the market any and the park still crawls with hopeful slugs looking only to go back and do it again. There used to be a hopper named Frankie up here peddling Redo as bona fide time-travel. Don’t just do it again, he’d say. Go back and change everything.

One morning he was shot in broad daylight by a client looking for more than a flashback. I was a hundred yards away and it sounded like a firecracker going off. When you got there you could see Frankie face-up with one eye open, only half his face was gone with only the one eye remaining, a bloom of bright red blood painting the canvas of asphalt around his head.

“Go back and change that,” the guy kept saying. “Change that, motherfucker!”

It was Banks who came and put the guy in cuffs. These days, that’s what it takes to get sent upstate. They don’t have room anymore for small fries like me.

You didn’t wait long enough, is what I was thinking. You gotta try harder.

You hear the stories now and again. A guy from the Bronx said he saved his dog from running into the street and getting flattened by an ice-cream truck. The chimes started playing that ice-cream music and the dog set to whining, and then he was out the door and the poor guy didn’t even see him coming. Turned the truck over and spilled ice cream everywhere. The driver was fine; the dog was killed.

So this guy goes back ten times, twelve times, tries to get his hand on the dog’s collar. Finally manages to shout NO at just the right moment, and that’s what does it. By the time the dog is in the street, the truck is already gone. That night the dog shows up at his backdoor, just wagging his tail around and looking stupid and happy.

Or the time Rico down the block got stabbed at the gas station hold-up in ’04. He went in for a pack of gum and these guys came in and cleared out the register. Rico stood frozen, eyes wide, scared to death. Stop looking at me, this guy yelled, over and over, each time Rico goes back to do it again. But Rico stares terrified, so he sticks the knife in his chest, just misses the heart. Cuts through some muscle and into the lung. Rico is messed up for years, can barely move his arm after that.

Rico goes back for the hundredth time and musters up the energy, and when the guy starts yelling, he just closes his eyes. And that’s all it takes. When he came out of it, he said the pain was gone. Full rotation of the shoulder, didn’t hurt to breathe any more.

A lot of folks will tell you it’s bullshit, but I don’t know. The more I see, the more it starts to make sense.

When I wake in the morning, I can hear Paul’s generator running across the hall. There will be gas available down at the Sunoco on 184th, and the balcony cisterns are half-full. I put together enough water to trade for maybe a gallon of gas and stow the rest in the defunct refrigerator. There’s still time to lay in a store before the rains give out in December. Used to be you’d never see a thunderstorm in the city past August, but those were the days when September brought cool air and the trees started to turn. You might not remember those times if you didn’t go back to the old days so often.

My current journal tells of the old days in fifty or so pages of increasingly illegible handwriting. I turn to a fresh page and flex the fingers of my writing hand. I try to make a fist, massage my forearm. Grip the pen and put it to the page.

July 12: I write. The last time.

’01 in the Cellblocks: getting high.

Winter, ’96: Francisco in CastleTown.

1994: The big fight. Dad disappears for weeks.

The penmanship is sloppy and the shakes are getting worse, but I get the important pieces down. Beside the book is my one bottle, four discs remaining, the black clock inked on the grimy white cap.

I turn to the start of the book and push through it mechanically, looking at the headings as the pages flip.

July 12, 2002: On the corner. The hottest summer in the Heights. Rafi and the arcade. Francisco’s car on Cabrini. The last time you saw him.

Again and again. July 12, 2002. The occasional deviation.

November 29, 2001: They fight. Dad breaks all the dishes.

March 14, 1997: Birthday and circus. Francisco buys the bicycle.

And July 12: Hot summer. Francisco on the corner.

And July 12: The last time you saw him.

And: The last time with Cisco

The last time

the last time

last time

for pages and pages and pages.

Books of memories, you could say. But memories don’t change; they can’t change. This isn’t some photo book or home movie. It’s a lot bigger than that.

They say you don’t forget the important moments in life, and I think that’s true. The Redo doesn’t let you forget, and I think it has a plan. You don’t come up just anywhere. You come up where you’re meant to. You go back to the right places, you see things you might have missed the first time around. And you keep going back, well, that’s what makes you stronger. They say muscles have a memory, and that’s how you can’t unlearn riding a bike.

Well I think memory is a muscle, too. And the more you exercise it, the stronger you get. Strong enough to go back and do things right. Strong enough to change what needs changing.

When I come up on that afternoon in July, the sun is bright and the air heavy. The cool sting of cola blends with the aroma of exhaust and burning plastic. Rafi is there again, hitting me playfully, smiling that gap-toothed smile, filling my heart with joy. In my mind there is nothing but a blank slate of possibility. Anything could happen today. This could be the greatest day of my life.

We move into the street and head West into CastleTown. The buildings stand tall and firm. White faces in polished windows, white brick and oak doors with doormen to guard them. Dukes and princes, I hear myself saying, with a giggle. I’m old enough to know there’s no royalty here. There’s no royalty anywhere, not anymore.

The heat is stifling, but an energy courses through my limbs. We bound across 187th and onto Cabrini. Air still and street empty, but in the distance the sound of an engine revving.

This is it, I think. This is the last time you’re going to see him.

The thought echoes and recedes into the depths of my consciousness. The dusty red car appears, rounds the corner onto Cabrini.

He’s pulling up in front of us. The moment of truth.

When the window rolls down and my hands are on the hot metal of the doorframe, I take it all in. His eyes, shining, his hand, strong and gentle and warm as he lays it atop my own. The intensity of the sun as it spills through the windows, painting every surface with light. The car’s interior, tan leather rubbed raw with age and relics of fast food jaunts and soda cans lying here and there. A small plastic bottle tucked into the niche on the driver’s side door, orange and transparent and capped in white.

I capture it again. The moment stretches on for an eternity. I have all the time in the world to gather my strength, to tell him I love him. The well-chosen word here will change everything that follows. This was the last time, yes, but it doesn’t have to be. All I need to do…

He winks and draws back his hand. My stomach churns with love and anxiety. And the engine revs. As the image begins to fade, the vertigo returns.

We’re back here for a reason, of course. We’re meant to come back and change it all. We’ll see what we need to see. Say what needs saying. Some memories float to the surface no matter what you’re going for. Redo‘s like that, you know. It takes you back where you’re meant to be.

So I repeat it again because I know I’ll be back, and next time will be different. Next time will be right.

I’ll be back again, I’m saying. Head spinning, his car vanishing in the distance.

I’ll be back for you, Cisco. I’ll be back here again.

 

mike
Michael Ian Bell grew up in Northern New Jersey, where he currently teaches English and serves as the Director of Campus Life at an independent school.  In summer he co-directs a boys’ camp program in New Hampshire.  When the homework is done or the kids are all tucked away in their cabins, he spends the last hour of his day writing, (or at least, that’s the goal, isn’t it?).  His first published story appears right here, in Shimmer.
Return to Shimmer #24

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. Harrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie did not come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

weldpull2Leslie did not come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vesta found the foreman’s office and slid inside.

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

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

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

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

This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

end_of_story

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

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow
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The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

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

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

“Sheriff,” she said.

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

“Is there something I can help you with?”

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

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

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

“One for sorrow,” Elyse said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Startled, she looked up.

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

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

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

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

My dear Elyse,

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

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

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

Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not mine.”

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

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

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

He paused halfway to turning. “Linden.”

“You’ll bring the birds?”

“When I find them.”

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

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

Elyse said, “Only men.”

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

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

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

Elyse,

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

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

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

Be safe and know I am trying to reach you.

Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Linden,” she said.

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

“Everywhere.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The letters?”

“The birds. The whole damn uncanny.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved Elyse,

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

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

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

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

Peter

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

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

Elyse,

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

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

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

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

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

Elyse,

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

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

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

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

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

It was still raining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not much of a storm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Put to good use.”

“I remember them having less of a kick.”

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

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

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

She didn’t know how to answer that statement.

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

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

“And you?”

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

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

“I knew you might have been.”

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

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

“They don’t want him coming back.”

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

“No,” the sheriff said.

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

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

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

“It’s against the law.”

“I promise not to look.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” he said.

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

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

Elyse,

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

Elyse

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

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

fin

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