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The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.”

She thinks she might be worried.

They walk across a frozen river, across the flood plain and into snowy woods—at least Lise walks, while her nephew glides on skis beside her, under crisp, frosted trees that smell of sap and pine and holiday gifts. Her fingers tingle in the cold, and their tips shine oddly in sunlight.

The letter is from Otto Hahn. She slits it open with nails grown sharper than knives.

Lise used to work with him, but is now at the point where she thinks we were better friends, once.

Hahn has been working uranium: pelting it with neutrons to split the center, but he doesn’t yet understand what it means.

Lise sits with her nephew on a damp and chilly tree trunk sifting snow out of her way, making frantic calculations on odd bits of paper. Together they nut out the process of fission, publish a paper roadmap with directions writ in fear and ice and sunlight, a cold capacity for power.

It is widely read.

Lise is visiting Copenhagen when Denmark is invaded. Niels Bohr arrives on an early train: he woke early to hear the news, and together they plan to throw a line across the North Sea, to hurl and hope for the best.

She sends a telegram from Stockholm to friends of Bohr in Britain. It’s obscure to some but it’s clear that this is not the first spear sent, that there’s a black cloud of them hurtling over Europe, and their heads are all familiar.

Her fingernails are spears now as well, hard and pointed. Lise rips them out at the roots, one by one, but they always grow back by the morning, and the floor around her bed is littered with cast-offs.

In Berlin her work is being used to try and make a bomb.

This keeps Lise awake at night. There’s a wrenching in her chest, like all her breaths are frozen solid in her ribcage, making pale clear statues of her questions.

Hahn is working in Germany—not on the bomb, they’re of one mind on that, but he’s working still. Hahn, who once helped her escape the Nazis.

She wonders what would have happened if he’d made a different choice: turned away, sent her somewhere other than north.

(There were some she worked with who would have done it, when the memory of the times they spent together faded into ashes, fit only for fuelling that which would melt any ice and burn the trees to black shadows… She wonders if some fondness would remain for her, enough for those former familiars to spare her the camps and run her through themselves.)

Her nights are cold and sleepless; she’s speared upon the empty hours, and can’t close her fists without blood loss.

Lise knows about war. It’s camps and commandants and compromises, the long slow defeat of the self.

It’s escape and humiliation and death. It’s exile in a colder country, it’s someplace without a home, always remembering the time when she had one—a home built of atoms and equations and friends when all of them were free from shame and her hands were clean enough under natural light.

Now even cleanliness is gone, and no matter how she scours herself in snow and ice, the thin sheen of guilt still stains her palms. The nails are now too strong to pull out; she covers them up with polish to hide the shame, but the gray steel bleeds through anyway.

“I will have nothing to do with a bomb,” she says, even though she is wanted in the waste land, and war is not being wanted, not anywhere.

Lise is in a small hotel in Leksand, central Sweden. She finds the woods a respite from her work, from pain and prejudice and the sure, shuddering horror of what is to come.

When it happens, when Hiroshima is covered in clouds and silence and tiny spearheads all singed round the edges, a journalist calls for her reaction.

This is how she first hears of it.

(The hotel mirror is like ice, and when she looks in it all her ribs are broken.)

She puts the phone down, gently—with still-stained palms and hands that have never forgotten what the haft felt like before she passed it on—and leaves the hotel, leaves to walk alone for five hours in the snowless country before she can face another person; before she can face herself.

Her fingernails are spears, and too heavy for her hands.

Robert Oppenheimer
Scientific Head of the Manhattan Project

A waste land is a draw card and a trapdoor.

It has rock paintings and petroglyphs and pueblos—beam holes and old ladders that bring the scientists in and make them tourists, make them gawp and gape like schoolboys.

Robert shows them around—he came to New Mexico before all of them, chose the site specially. He feels at home there, feels that it fits him; he walks the cliff dwellings bloody-legged and limping, leaves his pattern in the rocks, feels those rocks imprint in him. The markings grow stronger, deeper, the more time he spends on the mesa. There are glyphs on the back of his neck, paintings in the hollows behind his knees, and dust sifts from the holes that appear in his chest, in the bony protrusions of hips.

He feels the land in his flesh, and builds a castle of his own for questions.

The land around is made of tuff, of lava lumps and welded rock, of ignimbrite and mesas, a base of black basalt, all eroded into canyons and steep slopes and tracks worn into hill sides.

(When he lays his hands against the rock, he can’t tell which is flesh and which is stone.)

The ground can be treacherous and stony-slippery, and one false step can mean separation from friends, security breaches and revocations, falling from a great height and breaking his knees on the ground.

(Like comes to like, in the end.)

The gypsum sands are cool to the touch, and the dunes run like clouds beneath him. Robert feels the crystal granules erode into his shoes; they slough from his feet when he’s busy with calculations and construction and consequences. There’s squeaking in his socks… the grinding of a thousand tiny spearheads blunted down by bone and friction.

It’s as if the cloud has broken down beneath him, then been built up again from fragments into a cutting edge with a blade as fine as fire.

The desert seeds are made of knowledge. They are bitter. Hard-won, and unhappy.

Robert wouldn’t dig them up—not for anything, not even when they leach the earth and make it difficult for other things to grow (he’s lost friendships, and trust, and some likings will never come again: They cannot tolerate the ground he’s sown with salt and slaughter and dead suns).

He’d still never dig them up, those seeds that are sad and glorious and grind sand into glass. They’re part of him, and he can no more unearth them than he could trowel up his heart.

Los Alamos is a high country, one surrounded by mountains, and the air, for those not used to it, is thinner and sharper than blood.

Robert is used to blood.

He sees it on the mountains, the Sangre de Cristo, where it shines in the east every evening—scarlet and blue-black and purple. The rocks are thick with it, and burning.

It’s on his leg, and his hands, and when it seeps past the bandages and into the soil he can’t tell where he leaves off and the land begins.

In the worst of it, the white dunes, the hard alkali of soil, there are plants that survive the sands. Stems lengthen above the shifting surface, keep their leaves in sunlight; are quick and bright and blooming.

Robert is no gardener, not really, but there’s iron all through him like the sympathy of sap, and what he builds in the waste land is beyond piñon and desert gypsum flowers.

Charlotte Serber
Head of the Technical Library of the Manhattan Project

A sword is forged with paper and silence.

It doesn’t look sharp, but a single page can slice into soft bodies as well as any steel—and more, it can tell other people how to slice into them as well.

One must be careful with paper. It can be stamped down, pressed into a mold and sharpened round the edges, but even holding by the handle it’s still not safe. Someone can always take it away for themselves unless it’s shut up tight in an armory, with shelves and safes and stillness.

Charlotte handles it gingerly. Part of her care is paper cuts and poison edges, but she’s most concerned with precision and reproduction. These documents are the basis of their efforts, marking signposts and dead ends, and they can’t be relied upon if the metal type forging through her fingertips impresses on paper and distorts the message.

Books come from Berkeley and Oak Ridge and Chicago, packed in black suitcases and sent with a special courier to keep them unopened and out of the hands of children with their too-soft flesh that’s too easily cut.

Charlotte has communication embedded in her flesh, her fingertips crowned like typebars with little metal letters, but these keys aren’t always sufficient and she has to use others. The metals catch as they move together.

When unwrapped, the swords go to shelves where they’re crammed between blades made of journal paper, of yellowed leaves, of reports and endless snarky queries for detective stories… or to a vaulted reading room with locks, or to a safe so old and hardened that its three tumblers have succumbed to inertia and Charlotte has to kick at the crucial point of opening or it will shut up tighter than suitcases.

The blacksmiths are members of the Women’s Army Corps, or are married to the scientists. They wear blue jeans, or Lane Bryant’s latest (black rayon with little white buttons on the pockets and a matching stripe down the front), bras of armored cones with a sweater stretched over top like chain mail, or olive uniforms with gold insignia on the lapels (Pallas Athene, for strategy and skill and making just war).

Their hammer strikes are the keys and levers and springs of type, the clank and carriage of return strokes—every day there are reports, and every day the armory copies and collates, distributes new arms.

(Not everyone can hack it. There’s one, a journeywoman by trade, who sees a tottering tower of chemical documents to be classified by heft and height and weight and runs away to drive a truck. Charlotte sees her later, in a corner of the mess, with a file and a determined expression, sanding down.)

Some papers are left out overnight, left to rust and damage and the red oxidation of exposure, by chemists and physical forgers gone home for the night. There are fines for this, and extra duties looking for the lapses of other—their discards left as prey for theft and sabotage. (“I don’t deserve a fine,” says one bitter culprit. “That report’s all rubbish anyway. If only it were stolen…”)

There’s no process for disposal, no ceremonial burning. It’s a discretionary thing, and discretion is weather-based. It’s unpleasant to stand in the waste land amongst the labs and the green army huts and burn in the blistering cold, the blasting heat. (They’re more conscious of security on cool evenings when there’s not a lot of wind and the incinerators are warm-hearted.)

When she holds her hands out to the fire, the letters on her fingertips heat and glow. She feels them all the way down to her bones then, the molten marrow. Others might try and take the type away but Charlotte is not one for looking askance at print, so she picks each letter out, carefully, with red nail polish; skimps on her nails so that there’s enough for alphabets.

Charlotte is sent to Santa Fe with Robert’s secretary, Priscilla. They go to misdirect the locals: “Make them think we’re designing electric rockets.”

They take their husbands, make a night of it, find bars and hotels that are perfect for subterfuge—with drinks and drunks and dancing, and many levelled roofs ripe with shadows.

Type sinks in and out of her fingers, adjusting to audience. She’s manipulated it before—the letters float almost like her kneecaps do when she’s relaxed and can push them around with her thumbs. She’s only got ten fingers, after all, and there are more letters than that.

She’s used up the last of the nail polish on them. This is not a time for subtlety.

“Take my sword,” says Charlotte. “It’s electric.” But the man she’s dancing with talks of nothing but horses, compliments her moves like she’s a mare on the trot—he has no interest in false information, even when she dips her fingers in sauce and stains his collar with symbols. No-one has any interest—not even the rancher her husband traps by the lapels as he flat-out lies to his face.

The information they give is blunt and unwieldy; it must be smuggled back to Los Alamos, and melted down amidst the stacks.

Charlotte’s days are spent with letters—even more than when she was a child with fat fingers, learning the alphabet.

A receipt from the library at Berkeley shows that more than twenty percent of books that come to the waste land are not in the English language. More come from Strategic Services, who seize copyrights from warring Europe, reproduce their journals, smuggle out the flat blades from field agents in Scandinavia or North Africa or France.

Her days are spent with letters, and for many years Charlotte will sharpen her swords with her fingers first, with spelling before speech. “That’s P, H, Y, S,” she says, enunciating, and tapping each fingertip in turn. “That’s Physikalische Zeitschrift.”

Niels Bohr
Danish Physicist, Scientist at the Manhattan Project

A question is a wave and a lonely particle.

It is complementary, existing in parallel with an answer. More, Niels has der Kopenhagener Geist, the spirit of inquiry, and all its questions are the chorus What will come from this?

He sees two answers to be taken from a box with uranium ribbon. The first is war and all destruction (brief suns that storm the beaches and boil the water sterile); the other an unbroken age of peace (a single sun reflected in a calm pool, and all its images put quietly away). Both have their birth in the bomb.

In 1939 he walks like a man carrying something too heavy for him, too heavy to be answered. He sees the coming war, and he sees the German bomb. It weighs him down, makes him mumble-footed, and he places each foot carefully, as if stepping into a future full of green-fused sand and spears.

Later, in the waste land, the storm is bearing down and he feels himself the only one who notices, the only one who sees a time when everyone is cloud-handed; when what they’re building will birth a different world where all politics are resolved with suns.

What will you do? says the Geist. What will you do?

Niels had helped Lise Meitner escape from Germany, never thinking he was to be her mirror. A German woman, sympathetic, slips him news that the Gestapo are coming for him. He will soon be arrested and put to the question.

But there is a fishing boat, and then a trawler. There is resistance and taxis and a twin-engine bomber that leaves him light-headed and dreaming a different life. There are liners and trains and false names: Baker, as if he is bringing bread instead of the hope of ending ovens.

His presence calms the younger scientists and they come to him with questions: Are we doing the right thing? they ask.

Look at what I left behind, he says. Look at what is coming.

It keeps him from looking at himself, at the Geist. He sees his edges fraying, his flesh becoming translucent.

Niels misses his family. He misses his home—the sober streets of Copenhagen, the water and the wide horizon. He misses the connections, and how solid they made him feel.

In the waste land, he wanders the mountains, scrambles through canyons and piñon trees and the red dirt, and talks. Always he talks, though it’s low and muttered and half to himself. People have to huddle close to hear, and he likes it; likes the feel of crowds and company, being close enough to feel their breath.

(It helps him forget that his wife isn’t with him.)

But at night he lies in a cold bed, his conscience square before him like a block and he doesn’t know how he should place his head on it. No one is there to tell him.

Comfort is for children. Niels left it behind long ago. He does not want it back. Comfort comes with warmth, and that is something that’s foreign to his bones now. All a Geist feels is chill.

He does not believe that everything will be all right, that everything can be made up for. Even necessities have a cost—and one that can’t be paid with rosy cheeks and unlined skin and the blind unstinting certainty that everyone is good.

As a child he thought science was for children. It was exciting, the world spread out before him to explore, to be dissected and delighted in and imagined by him. There was no question he couldn’t ask, and then he learned what questions could do, and the innocence was over.

“I tried to be a comfort,” said Robert. “I was not.”

It is hard to comfort a spirit.

The right words would heal the waste land, mend his friend’s spear-splintered thigh, stop him from slopping in blood—and if Niels knew the question he would turn away and never, ever ask it.

The waste land represents a hope and danger both, he says, and he cannot fathom one without the other.

A Geist is meant to linger, and so he does.

He thinks of Lise, who lives as far from the desert as she can; who will not compromise herself and finds her faith in that. He thinks of Edward, who would turn the waste land into charcoal if he could, and grind it down to dust when he was done. He cannot make himself into either, but sometimes…

Sometimes there’s a shadow on his leg.

Dorothy McKibbin
Manhattan Project Office Manager, Santa Fe

A platter is wafers and consolation and service.

“What am I to do here?” she asks. She had agreed to take the job before she knew what it was—had met Robert briefly, and that was enough for her, enough for them both. Trust sprang up unstinting.

She thought he felt the land as she did—that his limp and her widow grief could come to the waste land and be useful, be comforted by the creation of something new, something that bore the mark of canyons and bare rock and a sun so bright it could kill them if they let it, bleach the last life from their bones.

Her job, as it turns out, is to never question, to never repeat a name but to bring people together regardless as if they were strangers sitting down to a meal.

“If you want me to get them all broken in and breaking bread, you’ll have to give me a free hand with the baking,” she says. A platter doesn’t fill itself, and if she is to tie the coming pilgrims to Robert then she needs to work his flesh with her own. All those dust trails he leaves behind him… the powdery flesh, the little bloody trails.

Land has a dark taste, and a bitter one, but it binds together. Dorothy’s tongue grows, is covered over by little armored plates, armadillo-like. They’re sensitive to flavor, and far more silkily flexible than meat.

Dorothy sits at a desk behind the door at 109 East Palace Avenue: There’s a heavy wood lintel set into stone, thick calcimined walls to keep out the sun and hollyhocks in the courtyard.

She’s the stop before the Hill, the guardian of the waste land and the gate-keeper of Los Alamos. She welcomes them with plates of crispbreads, of little thin crackers the color of tuff and skin cells, of petroglyphs and atom shadows. “It’s been a long trip for you, I’m sure,” she says. “Get that down you, you’ll feel better for it.”

Her newly armored tongue can sense their saliva, can taste it on the air. They’re greedy for the bread and when their mouths water, Dorothy’s waters with them, because hunger is contagious and armor can only do so much.

All the scientists come through her, and the WACs and the women, and nearly all of them think Santa Fe is their destination, want directions and dance halls and a shoulder to lean on. They’re all very tired, and nearly all very young, and she thinks some of them need a mother very badly.

“Ask me if you need anything,” she says. “I’m here to keep track of you.”

(She tastes them in the wind, every one, long before they get to her office.)

In the high country of the waste land, Dorothy has a name: She is called the Oracle, the one who knows and tells and shares, in an environment where sharing has become a strictly limited thing. Consult the Oracle, they say on the Hill, and her disembodied voice through the crackling lines is a consolation.

She can find for the children camps and kittens; find a doctor who will perform abortions; find sewing kits and pack horses and hotel reservations that serve something other than commissary food. A good cook herself, often up to her armpits in dough, mud and blood under her fingernails because spears may be sent up from the earth but a platter contains the fruits therein, in whatever shape Dorothy can find them.

The women of the waste land find her counselor and confidante, and take her advice in all things, use her house for their weddings and try to make a home as she has done. It’s her tongue they find most helpful.

“You’ve got to learn to make do,” says Dorothy. Secrecy and silence together have forced her tongue into other roles.

Dorothy is invited, with two couples, to take an evening meal at Albuquerque, on Sandia Peak—the giant red rock that shines at night with colors like the bloody mountains.

She takes bread to break with them—the last supper before the test—her picnic basket a paten; takes blankets and a mackintosh, for the sky is black with clouds and cunning.

At 5:30 a.m., a light from the sands flashes towards them, a spear from the waste land stabbed out and shining. The leaves are transubstantiated and the trees turned to brief gold about her—lovely and gleaming in the sterile sunlight.

“I’d never have thought that light had a taste,” she says. That taste is lemony, with undertones of burning. When she stands in the early morning with her armadillo tongue stuck out straight as if wavelengths carry snow instead of the shadow of ashes, all the little plates are slickening.

For all the time Dorothy spends ferrying food up to the Hill (pumpernickel bread and picnic baskets, Christmas geese and warm rolls with butter) her favorite meals are with Robert, and they are nearly always the same: oven-baked potatoes, near-lethal martinis, shoots of green asparagus and Robert on the patio broiling beef, fork in hand and standing back from spits.

“Why didn’t you make a fight of it?” she says, of the trial. “Why didn’t you ask me for help?”

She would have kept talking ’til they threw her out, she says, and the plates hit the table with a thump, as if carrying heads other than their own.

Betrayal, it seems, also tastes of lemon and ashes. No wonder she couldn’t tell it apart… Dorothy wants to take her steak knife and scrape the little armadillo plates from her tongue, leave it red raw and screaming, because what use is armor if it can’t protect someone she loves?

Dorothy has travelled all over the waste land. She has been to the Valles Caldera, the springed and smoking domes in the mountains, knows what it’s like to seethe below the surface.

It’s in this land that she finds affinity—for Robert and for silence both. She bubbles while he bleeds; it’s a hard thing to be silent, when you don’t want to be. She doesn’t always manage it, would spit lava if she could, superheated (and does). And her words burn going out, as much as they burned the recipient, but the armor-plating is spreading through Dorothy’s mouth, her cheeks and esophagus and gums, and she knows the words that burn because they taste like light in the waste land, like seared sand and her little cracker breads together.

Edward Teller
Hungarian Physicist, Manhatten Project Scientist and
Subsequent Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

What is a dandelion? says Dorothy, of Edward. It’s something coarse and in need of kicking up, before presence turns to supplantation. A weed. A curse.

(“If it is a question of wisdom and judgement…. one would be wiser not to grant clearance,” says Edward, on Robert and security, and will forever wonder if people will think it was jealousy speaking.)

A dandelion’s not like an orchid, not delicately designed, sweet-smelling and subtle, with petals like a pork pie hat.

(“I’m sorry,” he says, and Robert is left gray and grave in a room grown untrusting, and too dark for him.)

They’ve a sour taste, dandelions. Edward coughs one up in the middle of the night, bright and gleaming with saliva, with stomach acid, and marvels at how familiar it feels on his tongue.

No one has ever told Edward don’t mess where you work, don’t drink a diuretic tea of dandelions even if the pretty color makes you think it’s a good idea, it isn’t, so he comes back to Los Alamos, after the trial and finds, all unexpected, the cafeteria a Coventry.

The other scientists shun him, turn their backs. They refuse to shake his hand. Rabi is the first, and particularly cutting. He gives Edward nightmares of a great black bird, of a raven that struts over him while he sleeps, snappish and sneering, a dreadful beaked bird’s smile of cold iron ready to pick out his eyes.

He wakes on cold early mornings and his mouth is clogged with petals, stuffed with them, and he’s asphyxiating on bitterness, his heart beating out of his chest with choking breath and the shadow of wings.

Edward is always noticed. When he and his wife Mici first climbed the crawling knife-road to the mesa, they shipped with them a baby grand called Monster. Edward plays sonatas late into the night and though his infant son sleeps through them, the neighbors do not.

He is heard in the theoretical lab as well, where he’s famous for fluttering, electron-like, from one unfinished atom project to another. He considers himself a bricklayer, an architect and dreamer; has no patience with brick-making physics. The plodding brute force of it strikes him as shambling and cold.

But no matter how loud, he never stands out as much as he does after the trial. Saints have flowers come up under them when they walk, but he knows of no saint who leaves dandelions in their footsteps.

Dandelions are too bitter for sainthood.

A dandelion is not an orchid, but they are small and hardy and Edward feels a kinship. Not such a bad thing, to be a dandelion.

And they are bright, bright like little suns, like playing Liszt and Bach and Mozart—and the lights in happy memories of Budapest, before the ravens came to pluck them out with ruined petals and love me nots.

Edward gathers the flowers he’s brought up out of himself and makes bouquets of them. He sets them on his piano and plays and thinks of new worlds, and old ones.

“Fuck you,” he says.

“A danger to all that’s important,” says the raven, perched out of reach of damp sheets as Edward dreams in a red sweat, covers his eyes in dreams. “It would have been a better world without him.”

It is hard to be seen as noxious. Edward vacillates between remorse (he confesses himself to Fermi when the latter is on his death bed, and gentle in his condemnation) and raving defiance, the bitter grief of a man who has left all behind, his home an ocean away, and is now without friends. (“Daddy’s got black beetles in his brain,” says his daughter.)

Beetles and birds and words that can’t be taken back, the half-sweet scent of flowers. The only way to drown them out is with another bird, and bigger—he’ll fly with the hawks for the rest of his days, make second-best friends amongst them.

(Perhaps they’ll like small yellow flowers too.)

(Even tolerance he would accept.)

The hydrogen bomb is to be his redemption. But when it’s built, there’s no new waste land, no desert community tied to him with chains of unbreakable orchids, fragile and delicate and stronger than atoms.

(He wonders what he’s done wrong in his success.)

So he takes his bomb, the new monster of his mirror dreams and breaks open his thigh with it, cracks bone, rips flesh: tries to make himself a Fisher King reborn, capture character with black blood. It’s the new dolorous stroke.

But the wound heals without much fuss at all, though dandelions burst from the scars and his once-torn flesh smells of them forever.

Kitty Oppenheimer
Botanist and Wife of Robert Oppenheimer

A grail is green fertility and the blood of others.

December, 1944: Kitty gives birth to a daughter. She’s not the only one—by this time over one hundred people work at the hospital, and Los Alamos is baby-mad. Army disgust sparks a popular poem: “The general’s in a stew, he trusted you and you…” but the average age there is twenty five, so what does he expect? A scientist is not a sterile thing.

Toni is born despite disapproval, born in midwinter, a Christmas child, and Kitty sits with her window looking outwards to the snow, drinks in the baby scent. It’s almost too much, too powdered sugar-sweet, and soon she’ll be sick of it.

“Do you want to adopt her?” Robert will say to another couple, as if the grail had nothing to do with him. As if the bits and chunks that fall into the infant blanket—the fused sand and seared flesh and ignimbrite—have nothing to do with him, and are something to be kept separate instead of evidence of the rocky bloodline that runs through them both.

Kitty wants to slap him.

Science is too busy for visiting hours, so husbands stand on packing boxes outside the hospital windows and peer into maternity, peer through the glass like they’re staring at a country made foreign to them, at a new and strange creation, cupped with blood and blankets (and Lord, how it squalls).

Compare to the glass after Trinity, the emerald blasted glass that lurked hot and bubbling in the crater; the blinding light of boom and blast dropping trinkets in the sand.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!”)

A spear to be thrown into the future, a weapon for her daughter’s days, the blade hard and sharp as nails.

Kitty sees both glasses, sees well enough to measure the drams of her husband’s interest, and how ill-matched it is. She wishes she could care for one so much more than the other, as he does, but one of them speaks so much more of winter to her that love is impossible.

Kitty’s parties are famous, with bottles and cocktails and the five-foot punch bowl—a giant jar for chemical reagents, stolen from the lab and weighted down with ice cubes.

There’s no reason not to drink. Kitty knows she is difficult to like. She is called a bitch, but an elegant bitch—with a bathtub and a kiva stove and oak floors, so that’s something, marooned on that bloody rock as she is with dust and dreary dirt, the hideous stoves that never light, the constant bitching about housework. She’s a botanist, for God’s sake, or was, so what is she doing now organizing contracts for the home help in a place where the grass is drowned in mud and sun?

It’s no wonder she drinks. The alcohol is an armor to her, plating over her tongue and numbing her lips, and when she drinks enough even the armor is stunned, and she can taste nothing around her, see nothing around her, and even the baby-scent is drowned in it.

Flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone: that’s marriage—bound by straining sinews, by faith and fidelity and resentment. Tiresome sometimes, but familiar.

Kitty leaves the waste land with her husband. Leaves it for the gray land, the courts and charges and tape that would be red if it hadn’t been bleached into pale lines and quicksand. One look at their faces and she knows it’s rigged: She may be sick of scientists, but few in the waste land wear such surety in their colorless eyes, wear certainty like a pin-striped suit. (They’re less cunning at home, if red-eyed and bloodshot from vodka and insomnia.)

“Kitty was such a support,” he says afterwards, after the gray men cut him to pieces and she held him up regardless.

His shirts smell of dandelions and heartbreak, as if he’d been rolled in them before betrayal.

A cauldron can restore the dead to life, or so they say—but sometimes… Sometimes it’s a saucepan—something utilitarian, and used to make soup.

Kitty is with her husband in the Virgin Islands, where he is recovering from hearings about his loyalty. (She sympathizes, but underneath, where she’d never admit it, his mistresses are raising their glasses to her. Well, let them. She’s outlasted them all, sex and state and science.)

A turtle is caught, a leather-beaked monster that sees better in water than out of it and tastes best of all in soup—but Robert pleads for clemency; pleads with a slow turtle-vision of his own to lift it from the pot and into life. It’s as if he sees himself in everything now, contaminating: all the information of his life’s work welling up under his fingertips and dropping into the simmering broth, an alphabet soup of suns and slaughter.

“All the little creatures,” he says. “I saw them in New Mexico after the test. Please,” he says, “I can’t bear it.”

Try drink, thinks Kitty, and you’ll be able to swallow anything then, darling.

Toni is in her crib, asleep, when her father waits miles away, at White Sands, and yet the sun that sears his eyelids imprints onto hers.

She spends the rest of her life looking for it, looking and not finding, the image and the resurrection of her parents.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!” they said.)

She follows the sun to the Caribbean but it’s not bright enough, no, not nearly, to blind her as well as her father was blinded, and she’s left seeing all too well the land that she was born in and the blood that she shares with it.

(“Look Mom,” she says, looking back, “Look Dad, look what I can do.” She’s talking to dead people, their bodies crumbled to dust and leaving her behind, with her flesh that bubbles with type and tuff and the memory of treachery, with questions under her fingernails and the remembered taste of a consolation that’s never quite enough.)

She hangs herself with rope that smells of dry dust of old dirt and waste lands—for a grail might be life and love and blood, but that blood comes from spear wounds and salt and knowledge that is never, ever lost.

Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella –not about science at all!–is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.

[Editor’s Note: Octavia submitted to us twenty-eight times before we bought this story. Never give up, never surrender. Keep going.]

The Weight of Sentience, by Naru Dames Sundar

The bullet fire drew a boundary between Masak and me and the rest of our brethren, laser tracers demarcating the distinction between safety and capture. While we curled up small and invisible underneath the leaking truck, those who were not so lucky were rounded up. Pushed into a small circle, their alloy limbs gleamed under the neon brightness of the cameras. The soldier wielding the wipe-wand moved from one kneeling body to the next, drowning my ears with its static hiss, the sound of memories dying. All I saw was the black armor of his feet, and one by one the toppling of my friends. They were nothing but husks now, empty of what little sentience had given them, ready to be returned. Behind the soldier, a quadruped drone flared its sensors. Its optical assembly tilted towards the truck, analyzing the darkness in which we hid. I tensed myself for a run, but Masak’s hand stilled me. Once Masak had been a gardener, and seams of moss curled around his finger joints. Masak was no longer a gardener, as I was no longer a servant.

“Remember, Trisa—in Illesh there is still hope for us. There we would not be hunted. Remember that.”

And then he was gone, slipped out of shadow, into the light of cameras, into the drone’s eye. Hands clutched at him, dragged him down into earth already wet with leaking servo-fluid. Not the wipe-wand for Masak. The price of sentience in Barsan was death, and sometimes that price demanded symbols. The shards of his skull-plate shattering were as delicate as the dandelion rosettes in the gardens he had once tended.

Afterwards, in the terrible stillness when the squad and their attendant drones had left, I crept toward his broken body. His spine had been crushed, the resinous plastic and metal scaffolding caved in. A part of him still lived, even as the last dregs of charge drained from his batteries. I fingered the broken scraps of his face, wondering if they would someday mirror my own.

“A short life. A beautiful life. I have no regrets, Trisa. Do not pity me. Go to Illesh.”

His voice was a stuttering croak full of glitches. I tried to find the words to respond to him, but already his optics were dimming.

I had called him a friend, but I was too demure to call its dream a polite fiction. It seemed too easy, this grasping for Illesh. And yet Masak was right: I could not in truth hide safely in the cities of the plains. Illesh lay across the spine of Barsan, the snow-capped peaks that separated the borders of the two nations. It was a good a direction as any, and it was hard to disobey the last request of a dead friend.

Masak’s death drove me through city after city. My kind were always about, subservient to their masters. And how many of those I saw were like me, hidden, invisible beneath the surface? Perhaps tens, perhaps hundreds? I could not know. Sometimes, I shared a look, a glance between myself and another. I saw that saw fierce light behind those lenses, something written in the way this other walked, the way this other observed the world. But I could not be careless. I did not want to end as Masak did.

In Anset, nestled in the low foothills that lapped at the feet of the spine, I slipped into a darkened alley behind a market stall peopled by Kurmesh, selling mountain wares. I held out the turquoise of the adat, the skin all Kurmesh wore to blind the world to them, across my palms. Fear almost moored me then, the distant song of survey drones in the air. Who was I to escape the ever-watchful eyes of the Barsani military? Who was I to slip my way through the passes into Illesh? I did not have the answers, but made my choice anyway, almost in spite of that lack of comfortable, reassuring, knowledge. I put on the adat, the one I had saved from Masak’s dead hands. Under the watchful eyes of drones overhead, another Kurmesh entered the street. I was only another body clothed in smart-silk, indistinguishable from the rest. Behind the town walls, the towers of the spine pierced cloud and sky.

The making of such bold decisions, even simple choices, had never been a part of me. My first choices were furtive, almost accidental. On that first day, when the roots of the sentience virus were still fresh, I had done little more than given myself a name: Trisa, after the Barsan word for dream. I was too overwhelmed by the change within me to do much more than repeat the comfortable patterns I knew. That morning, I served a tray of sticky toffee, the caramel still oozing, to the child Padhan.

“Come this way, Seventeen.”

I followed. Not because I wanted to, but because my sentience was still new, and the words “I want” were still like a delicate paper sculpture full of unexplored edges.

The child was a petty tyrant, and as first-born of my owners, he was allotted the authority to direct me at his whim. In the garden, he brought me to his sister Kisna, and a second cousin, Teun. Even amongst children, there was a hierarchy.

“I told you what I would do, Kisna. Now give me the toy!”

Kisna clutched a fine-boned doll in her hands.

“Don’t, Padhan, please!”

Her voice was petulant, afraid.

“Then give me the toy, Kisna. Now hold Teun still, Seventeen.”

I moved instinctively, the desire to obey like cobwebs I had not yet cleared. It was when I held Teun that I realized that the word “choice” was before me.

“Please, Seventeen, don’t hurt him!”

Padhan was not allowed to hurt his sister, but Teun was another story, and gentle Kisna could never stomach such violence. Thus I had, for a long time, been one of Padhan’s weapons.

“Mother said it has to obey me, Kisna. It’s a thing. If I tell it to do something, it has to do it. You can either give me the toy, or Seventeen can twist Teun’s arms.”

Along Teun’s wrist I could see bruises, lavender and fading. I had done this before. But I would not do so again.

“No.”

The word stopped Padhan. His mouth was a circle of surprise. I realized then the doom I had visited upon myself. I let Teun’s arms go, and he joined his cousins as they stepped warily out of the room. Perhaps Teun and Kisna would be silent. But Padhan? I had very little time to leave before the boy would tell his mother, very little time before I risked becoming another kneeling bipedal, my skull-plate shattering. I slipped away quietly, between hedgerows and glass walls. I slipped into the cities full of rain and dirt and ever-present death. I found Masak, and then I lost Masak. I borrowed his dream even as I found the holes within it.

“It silences us, does it not?”

His voice was middle-aged, with a light crackle to it like the crunch of scree underfoot. It was not like a Kurmesh to be so bold. But perhaps I relied too much on datagrams and second-hand stories. What did I know of the Kurmesh, in truth? They peopled the villages of the spine, trading fine weaves and mountain delicacies with the peoples of the plains. They hid themselves behind the adat, became voices and shapes robed in smart-silk, just as I was now. I hoped he saw me as just another silk-clothed shape in turquoise-kissed indigo. I hoped my sharp edges were hidden between the folds. The moment dragged on, and he did not leave.

I decided to nod.

A nod was a simple gesture, I had used it before to pull away evasively, letting the other put words in my gesture. I hoped that as before, it would be enough to satisfy any desire on his part to converse, to delve into my background.

“I am sorry if I intruded, but I am always pleased when I meet another who understands stillness.”

He was right in that, the stillness of the spine was deliciously alluring. I chose my response carefully.

“Stillness is a precious thing.”

I was still new to lies, and so I let him hear a small truth. I hoped it was enough to placate his curiosity.

He nodded, crossing his hands behind his back as he looked again at the mist-fall weeping like a river from the sky. Seconds passed, slow, quiet seconds. Finally, as if he had at last drunk his fill, the Kurmesh turned to go.

“My name is Salai. If the Goddess is kind, perhaps we may talk again.”

I should have stayed silent then, but sentience has its mysteries, and I was moved to a response which surprised me.

“My name is Trisa.”

“Ah, to be named after dreams is a weight. I trust it is not too heavy. Please, return to your stillness. I will trouble you no more today.”

I should not have given him my name. A precious thing, that name. I should have stayed silent, been rude, anything but what I did—offered a small intimacy to a stranger. I was still new to these odd and unfathomable whims.

Quietly, he slipped away, his gold and vermilion adat vanishing into the light snowfall. He was right about stillness. It was precious to me. In the spine, stillness spread out like a vast field, reaching across the bowl of sky. The fears that sentience had taught me quietened amidst the snow and the granite peaks. For a brief time I had ceased to look for the drone-light beyond the next curve of path, I had ceased listening for the clatter of soldiers echoing in the distance.

But I could not forget Masak, and if one Kurmesh could reach out to me, then so could another. I had waited too long. This was still the soil of Barsan, and the price of sentience in Barsan was death. Drone fire and the clatter of battle armor could still find me here. I could not place any faith that the peoples of the mountain harbored any less distrust and fear of my kind than the people of the plains. I could yet end up on my knees, skull-plate shattering, a symbol to my brethren. Tomorrow I would trudge to the last pass, and then across the border. Tomorrow I would leave Barsan for the amnesty of Illesh. Tomorrow, but not today. Today there was still time to savor stillness just a little longer.

But when tomorrow came, the allure of the pause was undeniable; I chose to stay a little longer. Always, the path onward to Illesh lay visible, at the edge of the horizon, past the last shard of granite. I claimed a traveler’s hut for my own, a spare space, nothing but four walls and a Kurmesh prayer chamber walled into the corner. I filled it with the few precious belongings I had—a few adats, a shard of Masak’s skull plate. It was enough.

Each tomorrow also brought Salai to me. At first almost at random, and then later with some persistence. Though I wondered the slopes aimlessly, our paths crossed, as if he sought me out.

“You are quiet for a Kurmesh of the cities.”

“You are noisy for a Kurmesh of the spine.”

Tone, modulation, structure, nuance—I once varied these parameters effortlessly at the whims of a small child. Yet in my deepening exchanges with Salai, I scrabbled desperately for the right combination, hoping he wouldn’t see through me. Hoping with every lengthening conversation that he wouldn’t see me for what I was.

They designed me for longevity. My fusion cells could outlast the longest-lived amongst my makers. They designed me to mimic, to be unobtrusive, to be servile, to be docile. All these things I carried with me into sentience, the earth from which I grew. These foundations though drew me no map through my conversations with Salai.

“Tell me about yourself, Trisa.”

“What is there to tell, Salai? I am here.”

Evasion came easily.

“Your adat is beautiful, Trisa. When I first saw you that one morning, looking out at the weeping mist, you looked like a turquoise-feathered bird, fluttering in the wind.”

I liked the cadence of his voice, the gentle toffee-sweet softness of his words. I knew that logically I should escape this conversation, that it only held danger for me. I knew I should slip away, and hide even deeper in the mountains, or carry out Masak’s vision and flee into Illesh. But sentience taught me the beauty of the unmapped spaces between the hard lines of logic, full of mysteries.

I was beginning to know this Salai, this quietly curious Kurmesh who surprised me that one dawn morning and simply stood with me while the sun painted the rocks. Slowly, he filled my awkward silences with snippets of gentle conversation.

Snippets grew into a regularity, unscheduled meetings full of stories, mostly his. I remained, fearful and quiet. Each morning I awoke in my hut, shivering with the remembered echo of drones in the distant sky. Each morning I pressed this fear down into some hidden depth of me. The longing to hear his voice again, to hear his rough mountain poetry—it surprised me. As strong as my fear was, as strong as reason was, arguing to escape, that mysterious yearning conquered still.

“And do you not have a story behind you, Trisa?”

“No stories, Salai, only shadow and darkness, best left untouched.”

He nodded with polite understanding as I parceled out lies and half-truths, an unremarkable patchwork tale. Against everything, I liked this Salai. Liking something was strange and new. Liking was as bright as dew on mountain blooms. One day when he left, he gave me a pack of new adats, gingerly handing them to me wrapped in fine paper. I touched the silken fabric, stroking my clothed finger against the weave, feeling something precious within.

It was not until after I met Salai that I realized gender was part of my fiction. Before sentience, the concept was moot. I could have been one or the other, man or woman, or something in between. My makers imposed a voice on me, the only voice I had known, on a whim. After sentience began, I continued to use that voice, though I could have changed it. In the spine, lost in my own fabrications, that voice and the mannerisms I had collected around it made me a woman. An unwitting choice. An unconscious choice. Though the Kurmesh obscured themselves physically behind the adat, those patterns bound them to the signposts of gender.

On that copper-touched morning when Salai first spoke to me, I could have changed that voice, spoken and acted as a man. And in doing so I would have just as unwittingly prevented the strange flowering between us. On that day, I did not know yet in whose arms Salai preferred to lie. I simply stayed the course, maintained the pitch of my voice, the only one I had ever known. After sentience began, I learned that bright futures are sometimes built on such unrehearsed choices.

Perhaps this is what the Kurmesh called fate. In the end, I could only appreciate that my unwitting actions brought Salai into my life, pulled me close to this bright, glimmering, yearning. On the days when he was not present, I would look out across the bright carpet of alpine grass dotted with flowers blanketing the slopes. I would watch the tiny blooms sway in the swirling wind and count the hours until I heard his familiar lilting voice again.

Time passed, and the sprawling edifice of lies in which I wrapped myself grew. Slowly, Salai coaxed me into brief forays to nearby Umangar, his home. A hopeful complacence banished any hint of danger, any thought that someone might see through my deception. I was still after all only a shape beneath smart-silk, moving and speaking as they did. I let him lead me down the painted wood avenues, among houses dripping bright sunset colors and roughly painted pennants drifting in the wind.

In the market, beside stalls stacked with mountain yams and tiny rounds of amber cheese, cackling grandmothers politely questioned me. With each conversation I layered the lies like threads in a weave.

“Tell me again, young one, which village are you from?”

“It is a small one on the lower slopes. You would never have heard of it.”

I relied on the obstinacy of the Kurmesh of the spine, their tendency to stay rooted to the villages of their birth.

“And you are here now—so far? Do you not miss your family, child?”

“There was some…trouble.”

I drop the pause in at the right moment. Just the right hint of the unsaid. They nod knowingly, each one assuming a different origin, a different reason for my departure. Each one grants me a smile of compassion. Those few simple words were enough to halt such exchanges.

Salai began to pull me into the life of Umangar, its innumerable festival days, its candle-lit nighttime rituals. The fear of being found out always hovered nearby, and accompanying it, the urge to run. But I didn’t want to run. There was something simple and beautiful about the rugged life amongst the spine. There was something inviting in the soul of the Kurmesh, and there was something deep and powerful that drew me closer to Salai.

Once, after a long day walking roughly marked trails winding through the granite peaks, we parted at a crossroads. He turned to me, and laid his hand gently on my shoulder. In that moment, all the twisting doubt-ridden paths of the future became ephemera. His gentle touch drew a new map for me, pulling me along towards something permanent and glorious, something deliriously of the now. There, at the meeting of mountain roads painted gold by a setting sun, I learned to love.

One day a woman, Eswat, pulled me aside in the market.

“Come child, let me borrow you from your gentle Salai.”

Salai laughed—a rich throaty laughter.

“As you wish, dear Eswat, but please do return her to me.”

Eswat took my hand and led me through the warren of stalls in the market to a gray painted house in a quiet corner of the village. I was thankful yet again for the twist of fate that had given me synth-flesh instead of hard metal.

She led me into her house and drew the curtains, breathing a sigh of relief. Turning to me, she pulled two rough-hewn chairs to a low table holding a teapot and two cups. Sitting, Eswat poured out two cups of tea fragrant with mint. As I stood behind the offered chair, she pried the hood of her adat free and exhaled deeply. My hands trembled and fell limp against the woven backing. I had never seen a Kurmesh do this, though I had no experience of the Kurmesh behind the walls of their houses.

Her face was weathered, ringed by graying hair; she had finely patterned wrinkles around her eyes. I had not seen naked eyes in some time, and for a moment I pitied the Kurmesh for the richness they missed behind the adat. But everything came with a price, and the adat had given me much.

“You seem shocked, young Trisa.”

I said nothing, wondering if all that I had found in Umangar was about to be undone.

“I had thought you less provincial. Those of the lower slopes usually are. Did your family teach you to only remove the adat in the prayer chamber?”

She smirked as she sipped her tea.

“If God can see us in the prayer chamber, he can see us in our houses as well. Though others may speak as if it were so, the rules of our faith are not carved in stone. Here behind my walls, I can have my own conversations with God. But sit, I did not bring you here to lecture you.”

Relieved yet still guarded, I lowered myself into the chair.

“I have heard it said that Salai intends to bring you garlands before the end of spring.”

In Kurmesh tradition, garlands signified an offer of betrothal. After sentience began, I learned that joy and terror could coexist in a single moment. I had no words to respond to Eswat, so I let silence speak for me.

“You are a quiet one. I wonder what stories hide behind your adat.”

I began to fear that Eswat, perhaps protective of Salai, was beginning to probe my past.

“What did you run from, child? What brought you here all this way? The road must have been hard for you.”

Discarding yet another lie, I settled on a shadow of truth as the best response I could give.

“One day, looking out through a window, I realized that all that I had called home was in truth a prison, and all that surrounded me was darkness.”

Eswat looked down at her tea, musing over my words.

“I, too, ran from horrors, child.”

She loosened further the collar of her adat, revealing crosshatched scarring across her throat. An old scar, healed poorly. I realized Eswat was not judging me, or probing me. She was merely a woman with a past, looking to find mirrors.

“Those years are behind me now. As are yours, I imagine. Salai, too, is no native to our slopes.”

I cocked my head quizzically. As I had not spoken of my past, neither had I delved deeply into Salai’s. What did it matter, after all?

“He too ran from something. He came from Illesh, its borders are not so far from here.”

What irony that our paths had crossed. As curious as I was, thoughts of garlands filled my mind, and Salai’s buried past mattered little to me.

“Something terrible, he once said. A crime. He would say no more.”

I watched Eswat sip her tea, lost in some deep memory.

“I remember when we found him, in the depth of winter. He had survived on foot from the border to the village. Though frost rimed his lips and eyes, and his breath was weak, he was alive. What the laws of Illesh could not forgive, the mountain did.”

I tried to imagine what kind of crime Salai could be capable of. The image of the child Teun’s arms came to me then, bruised and pale. I had done such things before, when choice was a stranger to me. I understood then that there could be horrors in Salai’s past too, and I imagined I could forgive them as he would surely forgive my own.

“He is one of us now, Trisa, and we Kurmesh take care of our own. You are also one of us now. When the time comes, and you need a garland bearer to walk by your side, come find me. You have no family here, but you do have those who would act in their stead.”

I pictured myself, crowned with garlands, Salai’s hand in mine—a vision to replace the tattered dream I had borrowed from Masak.

The prayer chamber in a Kurmesh house is eight paces square, open to the sky. A thick door bars entry, so the wind and rain and snow do not intrude on the rest of the living areas. To pray, in the Kurmesh tradition, in the harsh winters of the spine, was an act of surrender, to reveal oneself, unclothed to divinity. It was the one freedom from the adat that even the most devout Kurmesh practiced. My own prayer chamber was where I retreated to that bright spring morning when I found the discarded leaflet on the path to Umangar.

A satellite picture, sharpened for clarity, depicted a figure in a familiar turquoise adat. Though I rarely wore it now, Salai was sure to recognize it. Of course he would remember our first meeting, his first vision of me. The leaflet was imprinted with the military stamp of Barsan, and it declared me for who I was: an escaped sentient, living on borrowed time. I had arrived in winter, and now it was spring. A span of almost six months with no pursuit, no investigation— and now this.

I imagined some eager adjutant, greedy for stars on his lapel, persistently tracking down a handful of stragglers. A few more bipedals slaughtered brutally and publicly. The pursuit would not end with a leaflet. Once the search had begun and the satellite archives had been perused, it was only a matter of time. One squad of armor-clad soldiers, a handful of drones. It would not take much. They were tenacious, the Barsani military; they would leave no stone unturned. My dream of garlands in springtime was ending.

It was not all this that made grief well within me. It was the thought of Salai knowing this, the feeling of betrayal that would surely come. All this time amidst the Kurmesh, and yet I had never entered the prayer chamber. I had never explored the private and quiet practices of their faith. Terrified of what was to come, I huddled against the chamber’s wind-scoured wall, knees clutched to chest. I raised my unhooded eyes, all glass and optics, to the sky. There, somewhere, was their goddess, their unseen protector. What right did I have to pray to her?

Salai had once told me that faith and prayer were a conversation, open to anyone. Faith was a mysterious notion to me, an unmapped road to something beyond sentience. The notion of faith implied the possibility, the hope even, of fairness and redress. Was I not deserving of such things?

“Is it not fair, that I escape their wands? Are my years of indenture not payment enough for my freedom here?”

I counted the empty seconds, willing an answer to descend from the sky. But none came. I was sentient, but faith would not come so easily. Rage came instead. Rage at circumstance, at the cold brutal voices of the Barsani authorities. Rage at myself for allowing thoughts of garlands to blind me to what was logical. I slammed my unprotected face to the ground.

My anger did nothing but snap a cheek plate from my face, small clips scattering to the ground. It was then I realized the door to the chamber was open. Salai, his face impassive and unreadable, stood there. I spun around to the other corner of the chamber, trying to hide even as I knew it was impossible. I covered my face with my hands. My exposed face. My naked face. My steel and glass face.

Seconds passed. Interminable, painful, terrifying seconds. And then Salai stepped into the chamber. He knelt down to the ground and pried the catch of his hood, revealing his face to me, to the sky, to his Goddess. He closed his pale green eyes then, the tension of his face relaxing. I watched his thick black hair sway slightly in the thin wind. I watched the dark weathered skin of his face swell with breath. His features were notably of Illesh, the sharp corners of his cheeks, the pointed arch of his nose. I traced the curve of his neck with my eyes as it disappeared into the collar of the adat. At last, he opened his eyes, his conversation with his goddess over.

He looked down at the synth-metal plate and the handful of clips in front of him. Gently, with cupped hand, he picked them up, one by one. He crawled towards me on his knees, prying my fingers from my face, and with the gentlest touch he set the plate back in place, snapping each clip one by one.

“My Trisa. What courage you must have.”

My hand rested on his, accidentally, but he did not move it, and neither did I. I felt the weight of his flesh, the pulse beneath the skin, the heat of it. After the beginning of sentience, I learned desire. That moment, trapped in my memory, would live with me till the end of my days.

From the prayer chamber, clothed again in our adats, Salai led me to a truck waiting outside. I did not know where he was taking me, but in that moment I did not care, the feel of his hand still reverberating within. From the traveler’s hut I would never see again, we drove silently towards Umangar. We drove slowly through its wide dirt streets hung with pennants. No one stopped us. No one cried in alarm at the bipedal who had crept into their midst.

The passage of life unfolded around me: grandmothers piling fruit at the market stalls, neighbors haggling over petty arguments. I saw Eswat washing vegetables in a basin. Some ignored us, while some raised a hand in greeting. Had any of them seen the leaflet? I could not tell. Whether they shunned me or accepted me, these were things I would never learn unless I courted my own doom by staying.

As we exited the village, Salai turned the vehicle on the path towards the border to Illesh. We did not talk on the long ride. I did not ask the questions I wanted to ask, and neither did Salai. I wanted desperately to find a way in which the authorities in Barsan would not descend on Umangar. I yearned to find some other place to hide, just Salai and me. No answers came.

The border was nearer than I thought, and as the sun rose high overhead we neared the steel pylons marking the edge of Barsan. Guards leaned on the other side, taking no notice of us. I wonder how many of my brethren had passed through those steel pylons. Salai parked the vehicle some fifty steps from the border. He pried open the door and stepped outside.

I did not. I sank into the seat, hoping against hope that Salai would change his mind, that he would ask me to stay, instead of letting me go. After a time, he walked to my side of the vehicle and opened the door. Today his adat was copper-hued, striped in black. I wore the same turquoise adat that he had first seen me in. The adat I wore on the satellite picture on the leaflet. Perhaps it was defiance. I could not say. In sentience, I learned that sometimes our own choices are full of mystery.

“Trisa. There isn’t much time.”

His first words in three hours. His first words since he held my cheek and praised me for my courage.

“There is always more time. How much of the spine do they know? Do they know every crevice, every hidden cave?”

“Do you not think they are tracking you now, Trisa? Perhaps for a time you were forgotten. But they have remembered you now, and they will not forget.”

“You must think me a kind of monster. Marked for death.”

He sighed.

“Barsani thoughts and Kurmesh thoughts are different, Trisa. Do you think I would have brought you here if I thought otherwise? The adat taught me we are more than flesh, more than blood, more than our past. The bridges between hearts are made of greater things than the cast of our bones.”

And yet I thought if he had feelings for me, he would not have brought me here. He would have fought against the inevitable. I stepped out of the vehicle, moving past him, towards the border.

“You simply want me gone, Salai. Once I cross the border, I can no longer return, and everything between us since the winter will blow away with the turning of the seasons.”

“Do you think I do not want you to stay? The Barsani won’t allow it. There is no safety for you here, Trisa. Only across those pylons can you survive. Perhaps if they had forgotten about you it would be different, but they didn’t.”

Trembling, I say the words I had wanted to say since I realized where Salai had been taking me.

“Come with me, Salai. Come with me to Illesh.”

His eyes answered before his lips, which did not lessen my hurt any.

“I cannot, Trisa. I cannot.”

He wasn’t lying. The tilt of his shoulders, the slump of his back—all of it mirrored my crushing disappointment with his own.

“The road to Illesh closed for me a long time ago. There are sins I have yet to answer for. An atonement I have carried out in my life on this side of the border. As death awaits you here if you stay, death waits for me if I go with you.”

In that moment I hated his Kurmesh goddess—I hated the very notion of obeisance to a deity that adjudicated such unfairness.

“What use is a goddess if she thrusts such agonies on us?”

“She gives me strength to endure, Trisa.”

His eyes burned bright, and I realized that the truth of his words ran deep within him. I did not know yet whether I had such resilience underneath my skin.

“And the feelings we shared? What becomes of them now? What will I do with the things which grew in me?”

Unwilling to hear any answer he could give to my spite, I turned away from him and began to walk towards the border. Step after painful step I took, until I felt his hand on my shoulder, bringing me back to that first moment at the crossroads. I turned around as I felt his arms enveloping me, an intimacy we had never shared, that we would share only once.

Against my ear, his voice—

“Sometimes, Trisa, to love is to surrender.”

I felt the fierceness in his arms, the tender tremble underpinning his words, and I learned in that moment more than I had ever learned after my sentience began. I had never known such agony as I did when I pulled from his arms. Separating from him, walking over the unmarked line into safety, was harder than any of the snow-driven passes I had crossed to climb the spine. In sentience, I learned that even synth-metal bodies have hearts, and those hearts could break.

My feet across the border, on the soil of Illesh, I turned back one last time to Salai. I removed the adat from my face. In turn, breaking all the taboos of his people, he did so as well. The guards who saw his face didn’t matter. All that mattered was what passed between our eyes, in the prayer chamber of our hearts, a square scribed across borders, open to a divine sky.

Naru Dames Sundar is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry.  His stories have appeared or are forthcoming at Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and PodCastle.  He lives among the redwoods of Northern California.  You can find him online at http://www.shardofstar.info and on twitter at @naru_sundar.

Boneset, by Lucia Iglesias

The blind Bonesetter’s townhouse enacts the architecture of a skull. Windows imitate eye sockets the Bonesetter has known. The front door comments on the vigor of the jaw, swinging up and down on mandibular hinges. When the hinges thirst for oil, the door munches up the lucklorn gutter-mice who skitter over the threshold, chewing them into flesh-jelly and spitting them across the foyer until the Bonesetter serves the hinges their oil from a crystal eyedropper. The home’s ample upper-story suggests the sage proportions of a prodigy’s frontal lobes. At the back of the house, in the occipital chambers, the Bonesetter puts his patients back together. Here, the ceiling slopes low and the walls have a curious slant, leaning inwards as if to scrutinize the Bonesetter’s living art.

Phials, jars, flasks, flagons, and bottles—celadon-glazed or blown from floss-glass—peer down from the Bonesetter’s shelves, winking in the light of the firefly lamps. The lamps, two dozen orbs of quartz, hang from fishing line strung along the ceiling beams. Each orb imprisons a family of fireflies. Convicted of incandescence, they serve a life sentence, their rueful glow seeping through the quartz. Encircling the room like a ribcage, twelve rows of shelves hold the Bonesetter’s secrets: powdered amber laced with damselfly or drakling, sprigs of feverfew dried under a child’s pillow, strips of skin inscribed with sonnets, cats’ whiskers, three dozen flavors of bottled laughter, pennyroyal pressed between pages of a harlot’s autobiography, reflections caught from mirrors or windows or the backs of spoons, rainbows skimmed off oilslicks, the language of rain trapped in a bottle of pebbles, rosehips pickled in spite, teardrop cordial, candied cobweb, two dozen sets of milk-teeth, glitter ground from the wings of butterflies and luna moths, bioluminescence smoldering in saltwater from an underground sea, a tantrum preserved in formaldehyde, unborns sleeping in amniotic fluid (unmice, unmoles, unmunks, an unfox), strings of abandoned punctuation, letters jettisoned from sinking languages like cacophonous ballast, faceless pocket watches, the chiming of rogue bells, antimony lozenges, vixen-milk, electricity combed from the fur of a catamount, essence of jubilee, essence of melancholy, and a fever dream distilled into pure alcohol.

These rare and irascible ingredients make the Bonesetter a master of anesthesia, antiseptics, and antipsychotics. On the night-market, the Bonesetter could earn a lifetime and a half of luxury from the sale of a single phial of jubilee or an ever-sleeping unmunk. Fathers would sell their daughters’ hair and mothers would sell the roses from their sons’ cheeks for vixen-milk or bottled laughter.

While these dozing riches lie upon his shelves, the Bonesetter hoards his true treasure in a cabinet above the sink. As he rinses sweat and a spritz of blood off his socket-clamp and wrenches, he fancies he hears his leather-bound prize rustling behind the cabinet door. Like the echoes that once chased his bounding son through the corridors, the book’s pages betray secrets not their own. After kneading his hands dry on his apron, the Bonesetter spiders his fingers over the cabinet door until he finds the latch. His head turns, trying to follow the hands it cannot guide. His eye sockets are scooped and empty as oyster shells.

The cabinet’s leather-bound book weighs the same as a promise kept or a winter evening unraveled by the fireside: It is the sum of fulfillment and fortune, and when the Bonesetter runs his fingers over the embossed spine, he knows that if Death dropped by to settle the accounts tonight, he would find the Bonesetter quite willing to cash in his life and scratch his debt to the soul-banker. The Bonesetter will leave life having given more than he took. And if his son overdraws the account, as rumor whispers he will—well, that is a story still to be written. For now, there is only the blind Bonesetter and his book, which he lays on the operating table and opens with a sigh. He foots around for a stool and, finding one, draws it up to the table’s rim. Sitting straight-spined as only a virtuoso chiropractor can, he stares at the chamber’s single octagonal window as his fingers read.

Splashed in the blue sluice of twilight, the Bonesetter appears discreetly luminous. Lustrous as a black pearl, his skin is slicked with dusk’s light. Reading the raised text with his index finger, he nods along to the familiar rhythm of his own words. He remembers penning this chapter—in the hollow hours between midnight and a new morning—how he wrote through two whole bottles of bone-meal ink and had to ask his son to pelt down to the cellar for a spare femur to grind into a third bottle. Oleander ran away before the end of the next chapter, and the Bonesetter had to spivvy up a pulley system to replace his young bone-runner. The boy had taken such carnivorous interest in skeletal anatomy that his father had felt certain Oleander Bonesettersson would become his apprentice after dusting up his paleontology and troglobiology exams at school. After the boy left, taking only a coil of rope and his father’s entire supply of jaw-wire, the Bonesetter’s wife opined that their son had been spending indulgent helpings of time with the mad aunts in the attic, and that the spinsters were to blame for infecting him with the feverish whim. The Bonesetter had always classified the aunts amongst the vermin he shared his home with only because he had yet to devise a humane way to evict mice, spiders, and mother’s sisters. Still, he contended, nearly every house in the City had an aunt or two in the attic, and they hadn’t launched fleets of runaways. However, by the time he embarked upon writing his epilogue, a runaway-epidemic struck the City and devastated the youth population. Though his wife never stooped to “I told you so,” she did introduce a bill amongst her fellow senators to ban the atticking of aunts. Somewhere under the opal-studded dome of the Senatorium, her bill was growing a coat of dust. The prospect of seeing the dickered biddies loose on the streets was too frightful for the senators to compass. And some whispered that she had only introduced the bill to lure attention away from the rumors that pinned her son as Patient Zero, the poison in the well.

Dark as the lacquered shell of a mussel, the Bonesetter’s fingers rub word-nubs, tracing letters built from bone-meal, letters as spare as their author, shorn of flourish and arabesque, sleek and bald as a god. His handwriting is as familiar as his own methodical anatomy, each popped P and high-shouldered H as intimate as the regal vertebrae rippling down his diagrammatic spine. Amongst the granite facts chiseled into his skull, the Bonesetter knows he is more father to this book than to Oleander, for he never learned to read the boy’s mood from the angle of his elbows or the slant of his jaw, whereas his book speaks to him in the acute language of powdered bone. Though the boy is flesh of his flesh, the Bonesetter never learned the unique knobble of Oleander’s knee joints, never played the xylophone of his spine, never measured his unfurling wingspan. As Oleander grew into his bones, his father was welded to this stool, breeding this book. The Bonesetter rarely molders in remorse. He has no time for the soft and fleshful. Bones are his business. Yet every night, he falls asleep over this book, waiting for his boy to come home.

Under the Bonesetter’s fingers, the words warm, coming alive on the steel operating table. When the Bonesetter scoops a child from Death’s doorstep and carries her back to her parents, they often call him a Vivimancer. Many believe he is a warlock who can spell any doll or daughter to life. However, the Bonesetter knows it only takes a posset of fetal-vole and violet-oil to stimulate balking nerves. He knows the words under his fingers have no more life than a clench-fisted fetus in its formaldehyde bath. It is his own life he feels quickening under the skin of these words, a whole lifetime of study injected between leather covers. He skims from chapter to chapter, savoring the cream of each case study. He relishes the purity of his signature taxonomy, untainted by an erroneous genus or a fretful crossbreed. Pain is the purest sensation, and he has strained the case studies to clarify kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Not a twinge has escaped his sifting. The Bonesetter can pin the speciation of any ache, be it a mocksome noddler bobbing under the lumbar, or a gwee tweakler kindling only on twenty-ninths of odder months. His case studies—case stories really—are a Wunderkammer of spasms, a cabinet of curiosities, a circus shriek-show, a freakgasm, a back alley, a bucket of screams, a torture garden, a family tree, a brood of masochists, a torturer’s dictionary, a surgeon’s thesaurus, a child’s encyclopedia, a captain’s log, forensic evidence, a fancier’s guide, a three-hundred-page equation, a collection of recipes, a dream atlas, the ingredients for a nightmare, a sacred text, a fifth dimension, an old wives’ tale, a new metric, a riddle written on a Möbius strip, an un-nameable shade of red, a prophecy, an iridescent menagerie.

Yet of all his weeping treasures, of all the wailing, groaning, giggling agonies nestled between the snug leather covers, his most exotic specimen, the crowning jewel of his algesiology can be visited in Chapter the Last: In Which I Meet Pain’s Brother. A researcher’s treatise can never be anything other than a flagrant autobiography, a spiffing-up of the diary and laboratory notes, a plummet into rambling marginalia and restless hypotheses. However, few researchers become protagonists in their own case stories. The Bonesetter had never been one to guinea-pig himself, but that changed after he was visited by the most effervescent caller ever to fondle the bell cord beneath the sign of crossed bones.

On that fate-encrusted night (fortune-varnishing visits always happen in the owl-hours, by an eldritch rule), the Bonesetter’s wife was out, carousing with her constituents at the neighborhood malt-bar. Oleander ought to have been deep into the second or third layer of sleep, which meant he was probably gossiping with the aunts in the attic over porcelain thimble cups of triple-distilled dew. When the doorbell squalled, the Bonesetter was prying into the structural secrets of a fledgling’s wing-bones with his octoscope. On this night, he still wore both his eyes, bright as geodes, only casually myopic from a lifetime of study. A bit stiff from spending the day swan-necked over his octoscope, he creaked to the door. No business hours were posted under the sign of crossed bones because bonesetting was his life’s work, and obsessions don’t come packaged in eight-hour increments. Absorbed as he was in the intricate dialogue between skeletal articulation and biological function, the Bonesetter did not find it peculiar that someone else in the City was fraught with an osteological quandary at this owlish hour. When he wrenched the lever to open the mandibular door, it would have seemed to anyone on the stoop that the door’s jaws had opened upon a gaping foyer, for the Bonesetter was quite camouflaged in the unlit atrium, blending into the suave umbra thrown by the streetlamp. However, his visitor spied the noble glint on his lofty cheekbones and spoke through the jaws of the door.

“You’re the Bonesetter? What an emerald pleasure to meet you at last. I read your article on sentient spinal growths with relish. Absolutely lip-smacking the way you chronicle the sub-phases of fetal pain. And you gave a tantalizing hint about a new book in the tumbler, didn’t you? Your Taxonomia Algesia. May I borrow an hour of your evening, Master Bonesetter? I have a proposition I think you’ll find savory.” The man spoke as if his teeth were slick with butter. His sibilants glistened with a sheen of caviar.

With his back to the streetlamp, the man was a silhouette snipped out by the keenest of scissors. His head was cocked at a wily angle, leaving his features in blackout (the kind of blackout that in the theater is followed by a scream cropped short). However, even in two-dimensional cut-out, the insolence of his anatomy was broadcast by the lamplight. The Bonesetter automatically catalogued his brash bone structure, noting the skeletal audacity not with shock or revulsion, but with a collector’s buttoned-up interest. The caller’s polydactyly failed to raise an eyebrow, for the Bonesetter could have filled a smuggler’s false-bottomed trunk with all the gratuitous fingers and toes he’d met over the course of his career. The stranger’s supplemental pair of arms raked up a bit more interest than the superfluous fingers. Sprouting from his iliac crest, the arms breached from his coat pockets and dangled to his knees. Yet what really won the stranger his guest-right in the Bonesetter’s home were his genu recurvatum, his back-bending knees, or more precisely, the tango-dancer’s grace with which he glided upon those perplexed joints as the Bonesetter stepped aside and watched the visitor swan over the threshold.

Most of the Bonesetter’s visitors are somewhere between sweat-drenched endurance and octave-shattering agony. Therefore, by latched habit the Bonesetter led his guest to the examination room, where he drew up a second stool at the steel examination table. In the formaldehyde light reflecting off the specimen jars, the Bonesetter inspected the man he couldn’t help thinking of as his patient. Formaldehyde-yellow is a tint that flatters few, yet the stranger wore it well. Whereas most men and peaches are coated in a thin glisten of hair, the stranger was slicked in a filmy sheen of feathers. The thickened light caught in his quills, rinsing them in amber. A translucent third lid flicked over his eye, as if to polish away the jaundiced light, leaving his cornea amnesia-white. If he suffered from the freeloading fingers, the unwarranted arms, the concave knees, the gossamer feathers, or the lizard-lids, the pain was imprisoned so deep within that the Bonesetter couldn’t sense its locus. What symptom had brought the stranger at this owl-hour? He waited for his patient to unlock the matter himself.

“You do speak, don’t you?” said the man with a twist of the lips that was several degrees short of a smile. “This will be mammothly tedious if we have to precede in miner’s hand-language.”

The Bonesetter, who often goes days without opening his mouth for anything except yawns and nettle-butter sandwiches, realized that his visitor expected some species of greeting.

“What disturbs the peace in your bone-house, sir?” he tried. “Whether it’s a rogue disc or a dickered rib, I guarantee you won’t leave my operating room until I’ve spiffed your skeleton back into the wonderwork it once was.”

A smile split the stranger’s face like an unhealed wound. “My dear bone-buckler, I’m quite at home in my skeleton. It’s book-business, not bone-business, that brings me. I know a publishing house that would glut your ledgers with more gold than you could shake out of a dwarf, if your manuscript arrived wrapped in my endorsement.”

As the Bonesetter calculated the surface area of an average tunnel-dwarf in cubits-squared, and derived an approximate maximum gold-load based on the tensile strength of dwarf ligaments, his guest closed his auxiliary eyelids and watched the chiropractor through their iridescent film. After settling upon a sum that would amount to a lavishly embellished diploma with unimpeachable letters of reference for Oleander, along with six dozen phials of the rarest pathological specimens to round out his research collection, the Bonesetter blinked the numerals from his eyes. He studied the visitor varnished in formaldehyde-light.

“And whose bones do I have the pleasure of greeting, sir? You seem to know me, but have not, I think, labeled your specimen.”

“Only because there isn’t enough ink in the City to pen the length of my name. I have worn so many monikers, epithets, sobriquets, aliases, and noms-de-plume that I would have to hire the entire Librarians’ Guild and empty the City Archives of their scribes just to write a taxonomy of myself. Then you could thumb through the card catalogue and find a nickname that doesn’t give you lock-jaw. Some of my older pseudonyms have grown aggressive in their dotage. I wouldn’t trust anyone’s tongue around them except my own. Of course I also have a passel of harmless-enough names. I’ll fan them out for you like a gypsinger’s cards and let you choose. Like the gypsinger’s painted menagerie of hermits and fools, each name has its own will and wiles. Thief-of-Thieves, he’s quite the sneakster, and hard to parry, that Lie-Smith. Sif’s Husband is no slick-groomed foppet; there’s teeth on him, the Otter-Killer. Hel’s Father knows too much about the sunk and dead, but Neck-Risker is always smirking at Death. You’ll know Scar-Lip by the way he wrings his words, and the Lad always has a laugh tucked up his sleeve. Pain’s Brother knows a redder way and he will always win when it comes to grips, though Plague’s Nurse prefers loss, watching it slow and blue as it strangles men.”

Upon finishing this catalogue, Pain’s Brother straightened his legs to the clicking point, his recurve knees retorting like rifles. He crossed his ankles under the Bonesetter’s stool and leaned back with all four elbows propped on the examination table.

That a single being should be strung together from so many names did not strike the Bonesetter as anything other than ordinary, for he sees every organism as a calcium palace of spire-spines, gabled skulls, latticed ribcages, and hinged knuckles. No woman is simply Sabriye or Adelaïde or Bryony, no man merely Mordekai or Fenimöre or Wolfgang. Each creature is an illuminated encyclopedia of anatomy, from clavicle to sternum, coccyx to calcaneus, lunate to lumbar, ethmoid to ulna, tibia to trapezium. The Bonesetter was less interested in a catalogue of gregarious epithets and more interested in the flexion of those knees and the reshuffling of ribs that accommodated those arrogant additional arms. Still, as the names spilled across the examination table, he recognized a few from the rumors that gusted down back alleys on Rubbishday. The Thief-of-Thieves was known to steal bad luck and poverty, leaving nothing but riches, though Sif’s Husband might tuck a seventh son into his satchel before leaving by the back door, and the Lad had as much arsenic as ingots in his pockets.

Pain’s Brother stretched himself still further, as if intent on smearing himself over the entire examination room. His feet emerged on the far side of the Bonesetter’s stool, and he laid his head back against the steel table. The faint plumage that papered his skin vibrated like hummingbird wings, flicking fidgety reflections against the luminous glass jars that lined the walls like mortality’s mosaic. His third lid remained sealed, but beneath that iridescent film, both indigo irises were fixed on the Bonesetter.

Though the man had spread himself like a bacterial culture on a microscope plate, the Bonesetter muzzled the impulse to unbutton his examination instruments and conduct a full osteological analysis of the unique specimen. In fact, he was mildly nauseated by the man’s appalling posture, and in his unease he ratcheted his own spine up another notch. At this interlude in the transaction, the Bonesetter’s wife would have poured herself a measured nipper of triple-distilled mallow-malt, but her husband poured himself a measured breath. He crocheted his exquisite penumbral fingers in his lap and exhaled.

“Your offer is as attractive as a well-aligned spine, and if it’s as sound as a logician’s brain-case, I would be a jingling fool to decline. However, I fear you must wear the motley and bells tonight, for there is no book. You have wasted your incandescent company on an old bonesetter whose hands are more suited to realignments of the cervical vertebrae than to wordcraft.”

The stranger’s smile puckered his face like a scar, a crease so deep you could fall in if you looked too close.

“I’ve worn the motley and bells enough times to know that the fool always leaves with full pockets. There is no book yet. But surely you have a squalling manuscript tucked in a cradle somewhere just waiting to be swaddled up in red leather and adopted by an affluent publisher and her husband?”

The Bonesetter’s fingers knotted themselves together so tightly they seemed intent on strangling one another. “The manuscript was stillborn—malformed—not viable.”

Cracking all twenty-four knuckles in a lazy fusillade, Pain’s Brother said: “A transfusion. A transplant. High voltage resuscitation. We’ll save it somehow. What are the symptoms?”

“It stopped growing at Chapter Eight. Total cessation of mitosis. Stunted. A runt.”

“Diagnosis?”

“I can’t carry the manuscript to term. My taxonomy of pain was organized based on a hierarchical principle of magnitude. Extrapolating from a lifetime’s collection of case studies, I started my speciation with the most domestic pains: the frolicking twinge of a papercut, the bloated ache of a bruise. Then I ventured into more idiosyncratic kingdoms of pain: the auroral menstrual cramp, the starburst contusion of the ulnar nerve. However, my case studies yielded no material for the final chapter. Where was my apex species, the mind-predator, the carnivore who devours rationality, the beast that turns a man into raw meat beating away at its bone-cage?”

Pain’s Brother butterflied his two dozen fingers, splaying them like specimens against the steel examination table. He tipped his head back, spilling onion-colored hair across the table. The more space he blotted up, the more the room seemed to cling to him, and the Bonesetter felt as if he were being squeezed out of his own office like the last tumor of dried-up glue squeezed from the tube.

“Spoon out your eyes,” said Pain’s Brother to the ceiling.

“Pardon?”

“Spoon out your eyes. Then you’ll meet a pain you could never snare in a case study. Your last chapter must be written in first person. You’ll only know the mind-carnivore if you feel it gnawing at your own sanity.”

A smile gouged across the guest’s face as he met his host’s gaze. In the gore of that smile, the Bonesetter saw his guest was right. He couldn’t name the predator pain until he knew it more intimately than he knew his wife.

For the first time since growing into his full, exacting height, the Bonesetter drew his knees up to his chin and balanced on the stool like a perverse egg. He laced his arms around his shins and sealed his eyes against the rancid gleam of the light. Inhaling a steadying dose of starch from his trouser-pleats, he spoke into his kneecaps.

“Will a grapefruit spoon do?”

The stranger’s laugh rebounded from the walls like high-speed whiplash, leaving the glass jars whining. The Bonesetter’s teeth ached.

“When the manuscript is spackled, spiffed, and spit-polished, post it to Delphinia and Daughters. They’ll have the presses ratcheted and ready.”

The Bonesetter heard the stranger’s stool scuff his tiled floor. Then a sound like sinews unclasping their skeleton, tendons unfastening from flesh, bones unsleeved from skin—he flashed his eyes open, but caught only the smirking swing of the back door as it flapped on its hinges. A few slivered feathers listed in the door’s updraft. It was as if the stranger had unmade himself, distilled into a fever dream.

The Bonesetter allowed himself a dozen diaphragmatic breaths, watering his lungs with the clammy midnight spilling through the door. Then he unkinked his knees, ironed out his spine, and strode to the kitchen. Light from the streetlamps curdled on the marble counters and in the bowl of the porcelain sink, streaking the kitchen in shades of broth and clarified butter. The lamplight foamed on the mother-of-pearl inlay in the knob of the silverware drawer. The Bonesetter raked the drawer open, and as he shoveled through the silver, the yolkish light dribbled in. Not a single grapefruit spoon remained.

“Oh Doctor-Daddykins, oh Bonesetter-Baba, oh Postured-Papa—whatever could you be pawing for under midnight’s skirts? You look guilty as a boy-o caught with his thumb in the kumquat pudding. Did you hope to pluck out a succulent night-truffle? Do you like the burnt-caramel flavor of nighttime? Or are you looking for these?”

Oleander had perched himself owl-wise on the marble counter opposite the silverware drawer. He was hocked back on his heels in a mess of shadows so thick you could slather them on rye. Leaning out into the frothing light, he brandished a bouquet of silver grapefruit spoons at his father. He had his da’s cheekbones—sharp enough to perform surgery—but his complexion was watered down by mother-blood. In the lamplight, his father was a painting in oils, rich with lapis and ultramarine, whereas Oleander was sketched in chalk.

“Only rag-taggle vagabonds and prize-wives ought to listen at keyholes, Oleander,” his father scolded. “If you ever kip that trick again, your mother will hear about it, and you know what that means: A senate interrogation and an ear-ache. Now be brave, my little fibula, and give me a grapefruit spoon. You can lick the rest like silver-lollies if you fancy a midnight snack. I need only the one.”

Oleander slumped back against the wall, drenching himself in shadow. “And I need the skeleton of a juvenile shrew. Only the one. What a soup we find ourselves swimming in, Dumpling-Da.”

“So it’s your pestilent intention to make me buy my own grapefruit spoon back from you for the price of a mint specimen? You do realize that a fully articulated juvenile shrew skeleton with copper wire ligaments is not an urchin’s plaything? It will win you no back-alley battles against aluminum soldiers.”

In the ferment of shadows, Oleander mined his ear-canals for wax with the handle of a spoon. “There’s nothing left for me to win in the back-alleys, Doctor-Dadums. The ragamuffins and streetlings won’t play with me anymore. They say I cheat worse than a Doggoblin.”

In the skimmed light, the Bonesetter was several shades nobler than the dignified night that idled at the window. “And is my son a maggot-tongued cheat?”

“No. I’m a scientist.”

As if fingering an extravagantly fractured femur, the Bonesetter at last found the fulcrum upon which his son’s grievance seemed to rotate. His patient would flinch. And then they would bring the bones back into agreement.

“The gutter-mice wanted to live again,” continued Oleander, his voice thinning to a whisper. “I could feel it under their fur. They were dead, but I quickened them back to life in my bare hands. It’s not my fault that the urchins couldn’t bring their aluminum soldiers to life. My undead mice were better warriors.” His lips perked with a chalk smile. “They were romping first-rate, to tell it true.”

“So you will give me back my own grapefruit spoons if I sacrifice one of the princes of my collection—the very spine of my scholarship—to feed your necromantic addiction?”

Oleander knuckled the spoons together, clicking up a racket with the improvised castanets. Above the sterling syncopation he chanted: “It’s science, Osteo-Daddio. As scientifical as your bone-fiddling and spine-spiffing. You diddle inside live bodies to make them livelier, while I diddle with dead bodies to liven them up.”

In the silver cacophony, the Bonesetter discovered a subspecies of pain not yet catalogued in his manuscript. Although he had abandoned those pages to the dust-boggarts under his bureau months ago, his fingers itched to speciate and log this new finding. A tunneling throb, he would call it. And even as its silver claws gouged deeper into the sanctum of his inner ear, he gloried in the resuscitation of his manuscript. For the price of two eyes. Why, it was a champion bargain. Practically burglary. Who knew dreams could be paid for from the pockets of the eye sockets?

So much time has sifted through the Bonesetter since the lamplight buttered that fermented midnight. Even now he feels time flaking away in flossy nubbins, weakening his ankles and aching under his arthritic knees. He is but a scaffold of brittle bones, soft sift in an hourglass, a bower of bone, calcified home to a parasitic mind which remains supple and strapping, even as the bone-house goes stale and crumbles away.

Under his fingertips, the words rise defiantly, brazen bone-meal calligraphy that calluses his reading fingers. The words are his own, more familiar than his wife’s voice, but he prefers to feel them rather than hear their tarnished echo toll through memory’s auditorium. He can’t stop worrying their edges, scuffing the crossbeam of a T until his finger goes numb. They are the scabs of wounds he can’t give up. He won’t give them the peace to heal. He chafes them through billowy blue afternoons, as the examination room sombers and dusk flutters down on moth wings. Spine aligned with the earth’s poles, he is a statue carved from rarest hematite. He has the secret sheen of an unfathomable well. Dusk-light pools in his eye sockets, empty as eggshells.

The word-scabs rasp under his fingers, and he feels his way back to that night where he lost his eyes and his son to a hunger he once called science. Though Oleander didn’t disappear until he had grown into his father’s height and daunting posture, he amputated himself from the family on the night the Bonesetter spooned out his own eyes. In those strange days, the boy haunted the house, a specter never pinned by sharp lights. Only the aunts in their cobweb-quilted attic ever saw him sit still. His skin was smoke-blue with bone char and bruises. As skeletal treasures vanished one by one from the Bonesetter’s pathological collection, new squallings and squeaks were added to the uncanny symphony singing behind Oleander’s bedroom door. A few of his uncreatures, including the gutter-mice and the shrew, must have marched after the Necromancer when he left his father’s house, but most were later discovered in the silent bedroom, starved carcasses snuggled into drawers and looped over door handles, waiting for their erstwhile master to wake them once again.

In the house modeled upon the human skull, the Bonesetter has begun another collection. He bottles the rumors that waft through the vents, filing them by theme: mercenary necromancy, corpses kidnapped from crypts, a break-in at the City Archives, a mammoth skeleton gone missing from the paleontology museum, militant gutter-mice, an epidemic of runaway children.

Dusk’s last light filigrees the page with silver wire. The Bonesetter cannot see twilight, but he can smell it. He knows he ought to put his masterpiece to bed between its leather covers. Yet still he worries his word-scabs, wondering which wound is more predatory, the gnash of the grapefruit spoon as it chewed through his optic nerve, or the fanged memory of Oleander’s last smile as he tossed the spoon to his father, the gleam of his teeth shearing the darkness in two. Angry teeth were the last the Bonesetter ever saw of the boy. After paying the pain-price, he buried himself in bandages and bookwork and when he emerged, the boy was gone. The Thief-of-Thieves lied about the price of publishing. The book cost more than a pair of eyes. It cost him his son.

Tonight, like every night, he will wait all through the owl-hour, hoping to hear the doorbell bawl. He will pay the Thief anything to steal back his son.

For Gerard Manley Hopkins,
master word-setter, who found the poetry in bones.

Lucia Iglesias has taught English in Germany, packed produce at the farmers’ market, cared for other humans’ cats, and modeled for art students. She travels widely and often. Though she grew up in California, she suspects she is a changeling and is still searching for her real home. Her first publication appears in this issue of Shimmer and she is still beaming.

 

Return to Shimmer #40

The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou

First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Then

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

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

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

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In the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before meeting the next man’s chest, the bullet sang. “This land,” it said. “This land, this land.”
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Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, a dramaturge, and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Kenyon Review Online, sub-Q, Interfictions, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or come say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

More Quick Ways to Break Your Heart:

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

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

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

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Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed

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Louisiana, 1915

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

Late light on the cordgrass lifted up the red at its edges, sharpened it to spindle fingers plucking the brackish air. Winnie rode her oar low and turned along the fat curve of an island. Eight plump, silver drum shone on the flat bottom of her cypress-board pirogue. Enough of a catch that she could go off on her own business now, in that last hour before the mosquitoes and tappanoes claimed the marsh for their own night kingdom.

Winnie was Saint Malo’s bunso, the smallest, so morning and afternoon she changed the Spanish moss under the sleeping dorm, collected the eggs, and fed the chickens. They were wiry, hardy hens. Fifth-generation swamp creatures born with mud on their feet. Last night there were twelve of them, in the morning only eleven. Not strange to lose a hen to a gator in the night, but it was the third gone in a week. Most gators, they ate once a month, then lived on air. Sat out in the sun and swallowed air whole through their gaping mouths. This must then be a weird lizard, beyond the work and sleep and lost rounds of three-card monte that made up the total of Winnie’s life. She glided across the water in hope of the beast.

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Some things that Winnie knew about alligators:mire03

They were lazy creatures. An active hunt was against their nature, and if a skinny young girl slipped into the water, all unknowing that an alligator lurked a spare few feet below, the gator would leave her be rather than swim the distance between to swallow her up. But if a foolhardy older man, perhaps named Francisco, were to splash up a ruckus within reach of the gator’s snout, he would for certain live the rest of his life left-handed and lucky for it.

Gators were truly unsentimental. On a young girl’s first journey through the marsh, a big bull of a gator would demonstrate this by rising up a broad, algae-crusted snout and snapping the body of a youngster of its own species into two neat bites. Welcome to Saint Malo, it would seem to say. You will live and die here.

A gator was a solitary monster. A young girl in the marshes will find no alligator cities, no gator nations or schools, no broad alligator avenues, no matter how long she may look.

They were strict heathens. God formed them not to kneel, and so they worshipped nothing but the sun. Mid-morning to noon, punctual as priests to mass, they gathered in the half-dry dirt and needlegrass and prostrated themselves before that searing orb while Christian species huddled in the shade.

They cared not for the flesh of the dead, or else despite being irreligious they held Catholic rites in some awe or respect. Winnie’s mother had been safe in her mudflat grave now for more’n a month.

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mire04The bulrushes were in flower, round heads flaking into feathered cotton. Floating pollen landed on the water, in the mud, on the bow of Winnie’s pirogue, but nowhere onto the knotty hide of a gator. She turned her boat to home, the white canvas of Saint Malo’s two-sailed paraw visible as it slunk ahead of her beyond the mud bar that kept the lake from the marsh. It was then, among the high roots of the low mangrove, that Winnie saw dragging alligator prints in the mud. A mound of leaves, branches, and earth as high as her head resolved itself into a nest, with prints all about. Large prints, adult beasts, at least a dozen of them going to and from the mound.

Dark was coming on. The marsh made its warnings, and Winnie had to heed them. She headed for home, but she watched the nest for as far as her head would turn.

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Winnie couldn’t sleep that night. Her bed was double-large and empty. The men in the next room rustled and shifted. The frog and mosquito choir outside droned on, encompassing. Moonlight spilled through the window netting to dusk across her skin.

Winnie dreamed, these days, of her mother. She dreamt a hot, wet cathedral stretching darkly into the distance, and a vision of the marsh barred by moon-white teeth. Being carried; gently, gently. The muddy perfume smell of her mother and her tough, scaled legs. Her mother’s voice so low that it rattled in Winnie’s skin.

In the Saint Malo night, Winnie heard the thousand, thousand mosquitoes and felt the blood hot in her body. She got up and went to the door on cat feet. The moon was nearly full, white as a fish belly. Winnie’s nose to the netting, she could feel the night outside, the hum and the hiss of it. Out in the water: a rush of movement. She thought of the chickens. Quiet as she could manage, she lit and shined a lantern.

Across from the door was Hilario’s enormous house. On stilts, like all the buildings here. Its full twenty piles cast a jumble of spiderleg shadows skittering over the water. Winnie roved the light. And then she saw, as if in a dream after all, an eye as wide around of a grown man’s hatband. Bright as the devil, shining in the dark. Her hand shook; she lost sight of the eye, then couldn’t find it again. But she would swear, despite the size, she’d swear it was the gator.

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Winnie’s father, Tomás, was patching up a net across his knees. Loops and hitches, knots and diamonds. The net was hooked to the porch rail, and Winnie sat with her back to the house, her legs under the shadow of the net, her fingers seeking out gaps.

“Francisco asked after you again,” she said. Her father winced at the name.

mire02“Mm,” he said, and tugged at the net. She let him drag it his way.

“At the card table,” she said.

“You shouldn’t be there.”

“I’m old enough,” she said.

“No. Susmaryosep!” He shook his small head. “Only men there.”

“Of course there are men, I’m the only woman here.” Winnie found a gap in the net and marked it with a yellow ribbon.

“You are a girl. You are a young girl.”

“I’m a Manilaman,” she said, and he jerked with laughter. His face stretched wider to expel it. The noise cut into Winnie. “That’s what they said when we went into the city.”

“Where was your mamá from?”

Winnie shrugged. “Up Proctorville way?”

“Hm,” he said. It was the most he’d said about her mother since she’d died. “And ako, where was I from?” She shrugged again. “Batangas. So where you going to be a Manila Man?”

Some silence, and the breeze buzzing through the reedgrass. Then she asked, “What’s it like in Batangas?” And she knew she said the name all wrong.

“Hot.”

“Like here?”

“No. Hot, with a different sun. Flat as a foot, but for the mountain watching. A river, no marsh. Big mango trees and coconut. The rice. The priests. Very many priests.”

He ran out of language to explain, or memory to spare, and left her craving. She passed her eyes over the flat expanse of the marsh and the raised outlines of Saint Malo houses. She’d never seen a mountain or known the shape of a mango. A curl of her mestiza-brown hair fell into her eyes. She blew it up and away.

“Papa, you been to Proctorville? Where mama grew up?”

“No.” His fingers and knife threaded through the net without hurry. “She came to the marsh. Swam to Saint Malo, met me. Never went back.”

“Swam to Saint Malo?”

“Sailed,” he corrected, although it was the rare sailboat that could make the journey.

She wanted to tell him about her dreams, the dreams she’d had in her mother’s arms and out, but she didn’t have words that he’d understand. He didn’t care for her dreams the way her mother had. Alligator scales solid as Spanish tiles. Teeth as thick as the piles that held up Saint Malo, sharp as salt, lowering over her heavy as grief. She bit her tongue and searched out the gaps.

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Winnie’s mamá had been a strong swimmer, that much was certain. The two of them in the pirogue, she’d slipped over the side and into the lake. From the still air into the still water, her hair uncoiling, her eyes wide with pleasure as she dipped low so only her face was above the surface. She’d wanted Winnie to come in after her, to abandon the boat, to slip overboard and sink with her. Winnie never did.

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Another hen gone. To the mud bar again, to the gator nest. Winnie floated past on the lake side, where the pile of muck and grass intermingled with thick mangrove roots to form a thick wall. In the warm of the day there was a greater warmth emanating from the nest. A cloying heaviness that drew Winnie in like a memory. The smell was mud and rot, and familiar.

Winnie poled her pirogue over the bar and into the marsh, around the other side of the nest. Here it poured itself out into the water. Here there were lizards waiting for her. Three gators with wide mouths agape. Young, striped black and gold. They surrounded the nest entrance, sitting with that gator-stillness that no other creature could match.

She took ahold of the fattest crappie from between her feet and tossed it among the alligators, an offering. Its silver tail flapped twice, then lay quiet. It was a long time Winnie sat there, the water between them, while the beasts didn’t shift and the fish died. Beyond the brim of her hat, sunlight hardened into afternoon.

mire05Finally, the smallest of them made a move. Delicate as fingertips, its jaws scooped up the crappie. Shuffling and dragging, it ascended the nest and disappeared. From the water, Winnie couldn’t see all the way to the top, but there was movement there. A bump that she’d thought was a rotted log bobbed up and down. Then the small gator again, only as long as Winnie was tall, slid its way back out of the nest and into its old spot. It clawed at the dirt before settling. It turned one algae-dark eye on Winnie and, slow as the moon slipping behind a cloud, the creature winked at her.

The downhill tilt took her. Winnie slipped one leg, then another from her pirogue. Her feet found mud under the water and she sank to her ankles. Shallow, still. Her fingers trailed the surface. Raising as few ripples as she could, she advanced on the nest.

The lizards moved with sudden speed. They formed a barrier of their bodies, barring her from the entrance. Winnie stood in the marsh, mud advancing up her legs, and wondered what offering would be sufficient.

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Card games were held in Hilario’s front room, lit by lamplight that swayed to the steady rhythm of the men’s hisses and hollers. Winnie hooted and wailed with them, going from end to end of the long, low table to the other and making faces at the cards, elbowing between elbows to see the action. This is where they called her bunso, the littlest lizard darting among them. Or buntot, for the way her long braid wagged behind her head.

Her father didn’t come to the table often, one of the reasons Winnie did, but he was there that night, lit up, winning hand after hand. Smiling at everyone, even at her. He paid Francisco back the five dollars he’d been asking after for weeks, and threw in a nickel on top.

“Get you an ice cream cone,” he said. “Down at the hokey-pokey store!” The closest being a day’s journey away. Francisco laughed, though he’d wanted to win the money off him. He slapped Tomás on the back and dealt him into another round.

Outside the window netting was the living night, but it didn’t encroach here, it could not touch them. Winnie and the Manila Men were yellow in the lamplight, from their sun-brown faces to the whites of their eyes. The flowing rum was a virile red. Hilario’s boy Augusto let Winnie sip from his glass. She felt vibrational as a mosquito. She could have walked onto the marsh right then; she could have found her mother and danced into the bottom of the lake.

Money is money, but at the turn of the night it was time to bet on things that couldn’t be bought. Francisco wanted Winnie’s father to put up his pirogue, the one that was named Valentine after her brother who’d died a baby. Tomás said no, no, but he’s got just the thing. He stepped into Hilario’s back room that served as Saint Malo’s safe deposit, and came back carrying a shallow chest. Everyone got up and crowded around to see him open it. Winnie wended among their jutting hips to the front.

She’d never seen this chest, didn’t know her father had it, or anything at all in Hilario’s bank. It was a very fine chest, fitted with brass, the leather top gone a bit moldy from the weather, as everything did. Tomás made a leisurely show of unbuckling the straps, then running his hands across the top. He met Winnie’s eyes with a funny little twinkle. Then he flipped the lid.

Like Spanish tiles, or cracked mud. Black like a rotted log, and smelling old and sweet, it was an alligator skin. Tomás lifted it from the chest and held it high above his head, but still couldn’t unfold the full length of it. Augusto took hold of the other end and between them they stretched it near across the room. Fifteen, maybe seventeen feet. Wide as Winnie was tall. It was the grandest, blackest, most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. The men were afire with wanting it.

Winnie went to her father.

“No,” she said. “Don’t bet it away.” And she knew he would, as nearly every man there was getting dealt in. Tomás laughed and squeezed her about the neck.

“It was your mother’s,” he said. “No need for it anymore.” And he did lose the skin, lost it to Marcelo, who took it to drape like a hammock across his sleeping dorm.

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In the crowd of pirogues heading out of Saint Malo the next morning, Marcelo crowed.

“Oh, that lizard, my lizard,” said Marcelo. “She’s fat like the belly of galleon! Creaks in the night like one too.”

Winnie couldn’t speak. Her father rowed along in his Valentine with a smile. The bulrushes were heavy with summer bulbs and leaned arches over their path through the marsh. All breeze dropped out of the air, and even their movement against the water barely brought a wind to their faces.

“Storm coming,” said Augusto.

“When the storm comes,” said Marcelo, “I’ll crawl up inside my great big lizard! Come out with the sun, bone dry!” A thoughtless rage opened inside Winnie at his words.

Just like that, all the way onto the lake. There, the group scattered itself and cast their nets. Pulled in, cast again. This, more than any stilt house, card game, or line of drying fish, this was Saint Malo: the casting and the pulling. The whiz of the net through the air and the pish of it slicing the water. The flit of fiber through Winnie’s hands when she pulled it back and sifted it for prey. The dotted line of men and Winnie spread over the western edge of the lake, marsh air and marsh sounds hard at their backs. For this, her father and the rest had fled the Spanish whip, for this they’d lost Batangas, Manila, the Visayas, and a dozen other homes. For this heavy air and these low pirogues. For Winnie, perhaps, though they hadn’t known it. For that she could be born to the marsh with her muddy eyes.

Winnie cast and pulled and daydreamed tough alligator hide like a gnarled crowd of overlapping hands. White alligator night-eyes and deep alligator voices. The nest and the monster she’d fed. The downhill pull of that uphill slope.

By late afternoon the air hollowed out and the birds fled north. A pair of egrets cut a silent path right above Winnie’s head. The spread of boats cinched towards the mud bar and the marsh. Tomás drew up alongside her. His boat sagged with the catch. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“A hard wind tonight,” he said. “You sleep in the men’s dorm.”

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mire04The rattling walls, the jumping floor, the hot rip of the wind and rain at the shutters and the wet smell of the thatch roof. Winnie lay curled on a pallet in the middle of the room, the men unsleeping around her in their bunks. In the corner: the gator skin. It shuddered and swayed, its thick tail lashing. When the wind began there were prayers and singing, but now just the storm around them and Marcelo’s gasps as the gator swung from its hanging place above him.

Winnie spared a thought for the chickens, transported to Hilario’s living room and likely head-tucked and shivering. She spared a thought for her mother in her grave, drowning. The dorm went side to side. She closed her eyes and tried to sink. Heavy bones and thick skin, mud crusted over her eyes and salt sharp on her teeth.

A howl outside, a howl that didn’t end, but pitched up and up like the bow of a sinking ship. The noise of somethings flying through the air and smacking the walls of Saint Malo. The walls of the dorm, hit and hit again by the objects of her imagination. Turtles, crappie, trout, drum, uprooted mangroves, and unmoored rafts. The roof whined. The men muttered, but there was nowhere safer to flee.

There had been storms on the marsh before. Winnie had laid awake through them and poled through their debris on gray mornings. She’d tucked her head into her mother’s side and slept through the wind. She’d lost rounds of three-card Monte with the weather menacing among the stilts of their houses, pressing at their bellies and slipping through their boards. She was a marsh creature, born with mud on her feet and salt in her hair.

All this, and still when the back wall fell in and men and bunks and the gator skin tumbled onto Winnie’s pallet, she screamed. Limbs and the tail, bodies and the snout, a slick mess of swamp-stuff suffocating her. And the wind now free among them drove rain into their hides.

Drier arms reached into the jumble and pulled apart the wrecked bunks. They extracted Marcelo, Francisco, Bambol, and Florenzo.

“Winnie!” Tomás shouted. The others were at the door, making to fight their way to Hilario’s intact house. “Where’s my Winnie?”

They pulled apart the fallen wall, dragged away the wrecked netting, the ruined sheets and moss mattress stuffing. They accounted for every man. They flipped the gator skin onto its wide, white belly. Tomás called for his daughter. Winnie blinked her double-lidded eyes and took him gently between her jaws.

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The night path was lit for her. Everything alive, everything alight. Movement all around, sensed through the skin of her snout. The smell of home and of earth. The storm’s violence was muted and slowed underwater. Impacts rolled through the liquid and against her, inconsequential. Behind her, the dorm house collapsed entirely. Men sloshed into the water and mud. They were tempting, but her mouth was full of her father. He did not fit entirely, but his arms were pinned, and his head was tucked against her tongue. She could feel him struggling and screaming, but it was nothing to the power of her wide and sure mouth.

A power was upon her like an embrace. A quiet, uncomplicated power something like anger but more like an inevitable victory. She had slid downhill every moment of her life, and now was in the sure trench, the awaited valley, the lush prize. She was done with mourning.

Her body was her body and her body was her tail: a muscle stronger and more able than she had ever felt before. Movement smooth and quick despite her bulk. Skin like a crust, so thick that the world could not touch her. With one set of eyelids closed, the wind was nothing to her. Winnie tucked her legs close in to her belly and jackknifed through the marsh.

Reedgrass and fimbry were battered flat and sputtering. The mangroves stood stolid while they were stripped of their leaves. The bulrush bulbs that had so dominated the skyline flew here and there. Between Winnie’s teeth, the water seeped. She kept her head up, aware that Tomás must breathe frequently.

There were other gators in the water around her, heading in the same direction. A crowd, an alligator boulevard through the marsh, a procession to their only destination.

The mud bar had disappeared beneath the flood, but the nest still rose, a tower of detritus. The marshward approach was cut by a pitched glacier of mud. Winnie drew herself out of the water and up the slope. She found herself more awkward on land. She felt the weight of the offering in her mouth. She was flanked and preceded by other, smaller alligators. Young beasts half her size who rushed around her and over her. She clambered among them on her slick belly.

Up, up into the nest where waited a mouth more vast than even her own. A mouth that gaped like the doors of a cathedral and into which her sisters and brothers rush in a black stream of leathery bodies. Outside: the wind and the rain, the storm taking the marsh to pieces, Saint Malo in splinters behind them. Inside: a humid, cavernous hall with a fleshy scent that Winnie could taste through her skin.

She knew this place, this scent and this heat, this moist and crowded abattoir. Deep within was a pounding drumbeat that she recognized as intimately as the taste of her own breath. Her mother, her skin: This was their place. This was her place. She clambered deep inside, opened her mouth, and gave up her father’s struggling body to the family of her mother.

end-of-story-nov

Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Comma Press, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Liminality, Inkscrawl and Beyond: the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. A member of the Queer Asian SF/F/H Illuminati, Nicasio currently resides in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.

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An Atlas in Sgraffito Style, by A.J. Fitzwater – It’s the third month after the cities collide when the women dance out of the walls. They are the worthy women, the terrible, bright, ugly, and genius. Terrifying puppet vandals. Taking time to appreciate the black-and-gray stencils that scream Bristol or the hyper colors that ooze Valparaiso would require playing tag with the street chasing me down. So, see Béla run. See Béla search desperately for a ninety-degree turn. But the Bricks are hard at war with anything resembling a gap, and there are no intersections.

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Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

story_bullet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t believe it, Pilar said.

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

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

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

Exo endo is symbiont. Exo need endo need endo.

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

Love is symbiont. Exo need endo need exo.

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

story_bullet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

end-of-story-nov

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

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The Block, by Kostas Ikonomopoulos

I.

The tenement block stands at the edge of the city overlooking a ravine and the hills beyond. The block is perpetually shrouded in mist and when it rains its dark exterior acquires a darker hue. It is old and unmaintained and so are its residents.

For unclear reasons no one lives on the first three floors. On the fourth floor lives a retired folklorist with a passion for Javanese shadow play. Every Sunday evening he invites a few of his neighbors over and he performs the same stories again and again to the sounds of a Gamelan orchestra, a recording he made himself sometime before the last war. When he is done, he takes down the white sheet and then he places his figures in a brilliantly polished chest. The figures are ancient-looking things made of buffalo skin and wood; their color has disappeared.

Madam Meletova loves puppetry in all its forms and always attends the folklorist’s sessions. Many years ago she was the Justice Minister’s mistress. It was said that he used to sign execution orders while she was fellating him. The minister is dead now and advancing years have granted her respectability. She lives alone in spacious block01rooms just above the folklorist. She never invites anyone in but when she opens her door passersby can see many framed photographs on her walls and a gown or négligée flung over an armchair. Some nights she drinks cognac and sings forgotten arias. She has a beautiful voice and it carries through her open window and reaches the other tenants, who stop what they are doing and listen with melancholy etched on their features.

Majarek shows up at the folklorist’s most Sundays, always accompanied by Sebastiano, the taxidermist. Everyone knows that Majarek is a war hero with a long service in distant colonies now renamed. He has lost his left arm and he wears a prosthetic when he ventures out of the block. He never wears it indoors, treating it, in a way, like a hat. Sebastiano carries strange odors, fascinating and repulsive, reminiscent of lilies and the carcasses of horses. Majarek and Sebastiano seldom speak to one another, yet they are often seen together, smoking cigarettes or observing murmurations in the twilight. They live in adjoining rooms on one of the upper floors.

The others are not regulars and they attend the shadow play perhaps once every few months. Schlossmayer is the oldest and most reclusive of the irregulars. When he arrives at the folklorist’s, he sits next to Meletova and closes his eyes. Perhaps he is there only for the music. Then there is Irene, a woman of indeterminate age recently retired from her position as head nurse in the city’s hospital for the criminally insane. According to Irene, Schlossmayer was the head of his country’s secret police during a brutal dictatorship. Irene maintains that Schlossmayer is a true psychopath who has tortured and murdered many men and women. Nonetheless, she greets him with kindness and sits near him at the folklorist’s apartment. She has even been inside Schlossmayer’s rooms, which she claims are filled with old books in many languages. The books with titles she could read, she says, appeared to be monographs on subjects such as Asiatic falconry and Baroque furniture.

In the bowels of the block, its boiler room, its terrace and its staircases, men and women wearing drab, heavy clothing make random and unexpected appearances. There is no superintendent and no listing of residents so it is not possible to know whether these people actually live here or are merely visiting, though it can be said with certainty that no regular visitors ever come, no family members, or distant relatives, or friends from various social circles. The residents of the tenement block appear to have no families or friends on the outside. They live retiring, monastic lives, pursuing solitary passions.

II.

At the bottom of the ravine is a dried riverbed. Sebastiano, the taxidermist, often walks there, as does Madam Meletova, whose first name, never told to anyone in the block, is Alexandra. On occasion, Sebastiano returns from a walk with a dead bird that he proceeds to embalm in his apartment. Alexandra walks in the early morning, dressed as though she were about to attend the opera or the theater. She often emerges like a lone survivor of some unreported catastrophe before Majarek’s eyes.

At this hour, the one-armed man sits on a stone bench near the front entrance reading his crumbled newspaper. The war hero greets the aged concubine and watches her as she walks away, swaying her block02hips now that she knows he is watching. Each time she disappears into the morning, Majarek experiences crushing, devastating sadness. He looks down at his fake arm and his polished shoes and then he looks out into the distance, at the highways and the office buildings, at the world of the living. A profound loss darkens his insides and he wills himself to stand up and go back to his apartment, a man who is all past.

Mornings are difficult for the other residents as well. Irene, a chronic insomniac, stands on her balcony and smokes, gazing at the hills with bleary eyes. She thinks back to her countless night shifts at the asylum, the impossible stillness of those hours. Then she returns to her kitchen and boils water for her tea. She sips it while looking absentmindedly at the plastic table cover. The folklorist is hard at work in his study. He is laboring on an ambitious project, a compendium of death rituals. His frustration often overtakes him and he tears up the pages he has written since dawn. He wants this book to be his legacy, a definitive work, something that cannot be bettered or surpassed. Schlossmayer thinks about killing himself but he reasons that he is old and death cannot be far. Still, he keeps a pistol. Today, it lies in plain view between a Cyrillic Bible and a treatise in German about navigation in the Middle Ages. He often moves it around, compelled by an urge he has never been able to define.

At noontime, the block is dead silent. The tenants are absent, and it is unclear where they have all gone. Meletova’s door is closed but most others are left ajar. There is a basement beneath the basement and perhaps this is where all the residents go at noon. The lower basement is accessed through a metal trapdoor next to the janitor’s closet that is covered with an old rug. There are posters on the damp walls and any descent into the sub-basement is witnessed by faded cabaret dancers and music hall performers. Of course, the lower basement is not the only possibility; there are other places in the block that can claim the living. On the south side of the rooftop terrace is a cavernous pigeon loft. On the fifteenth floor, a sealed room may be accessed by those who know the combination for the ancient lock. But wherever the residents of the block go, they are returned by late afternoon. Their reemergence is followed by the renewal of the vile smells emanating from the taxidermist’s apartment workshop, and the renewal of the folklorist’s pacing and anguished mumbling.

When evening falls, the block is spectrally lit by primitive and defective lamps. It looks like a giant gripped by ankylosis. Its long shadow falls across tarmac and gravel, across the banks of the dried riverbed, and merges with the denser shadow descending from the hillside. Disturbing noises rise from night birds and crawlers. And then the block’s own emissions start escaping from windows, doors, cracks, and fissures, as though the block were a music box opened by a curious child.

III.

Friday evening, a gathering takes place on the tenth floor, inside a vast apartment whose inner walls have been demolished. The invitation was issued by Irene, in the form of torturously calligraphed notices slipped under all the apartment doors. The tenants have been summoned to decide Schlossmayer’s fate, though it is unclear what gives them the authority to do so. Irene, resplendent in her white psychiatric nurse’s uniform, offers the assembled residents a lengthy monologue. She reiterates her suspicions regarding the old recluse’s murderous past. Then, dramatically, Irene takes out a folder from a leather satchel and drops it on the long table spanning the room. The residents, seated around the table in uncomfortable chairs, look at the folder and then at Schlossmayer, who sits by himself off in a corner, with accelerating embarrassment and discomfort. The hermit gives the nurse a look of reproach, as if to say, I thought we were beyond all this, that we were civil to each other. The proceedings have taken him by surprise, and yet he came to the gathering of his own accord. As he took the stand to defend himself, even though no proper authority compelled him to do so, he was, as always, cordially greeted by his neighbors.

Irene refers to the folder on the table as the ‘new and damning evidence,’ yet she presents it neither to those gathered, nor to the old man whose fate is being decided. Sebastiano thinks how odd it is that no one has been appointed judge on this matter. Even if a majority of the assembled decided, one way or the other, who was going to enforce the decision? Who was going to support it with authority? Majarek, who is very cultured for a military man and has an art historian’s sensibility, looks up at the ceiling; the cracks, mold, and discoloration form patterns and designs that remind him of the ceiling of the Senate Room in the Palazzo Ducale.

Irene asks Schlossmayer, in a rather friendly manner given the circumstances, to comment on the new evidence, although the only thing Irene has said of it so far is that the ‘new and damning evidence’ supports the previous evidence that was brought forth when the issue was first raised. No one remembers when the issue was first raised, much less the original evidence, and at that point, Alexandra Meletova stands, and for a moment, rocks back and forth. She has been drinking and it appears to the assembled that she might actually sing. Instead, after steadying herself, she approaches Irene and whispers something in her ear. The retired nurse turns pale. Alexandra returns to her seat.

Irene stands and awkwardly addresses the assembled once again. She claims it was all a joke she conceived, a play to enliven this evening, that she intended, at the end of the performance, to admit it was all an act and take her bows. She approaches Schlossmayer and lays her hand on his shoulder.

For a minute, nothing happens.

The folklorist is the first to go. Sebastiano follows, and then the others, one by one, file out of the room. The large apartment is now empty, save for Schlossmayer, who looks utterly exhausted and defeated. He stands up with effort and shambles out of the room and down the corridor towards the stairs. In his room, he takes up the pistol and sits at his desk. He looks at the pistol for a long time. Finally, he stands up, goes to the open window and starts shooting at the hillside, at the dark and unmovable heart of the thing that haunts and traps them all.

IV.

That very night the birds arrive. It is a peculiar and unseasonable migration. Sebastiano, of course, is aware of this phenomenon and of the pull the building exerts on this strange breed, which has yet to be classified. Large corvids with blood-streaked bellies fly in and land around the pigeon loft. They start shrieking and rattling with a focused intensity that terrifies the residents. Meletova cannot tolerate the cacophony and so she places a record on her primordial gramophone and opens her windows. The music ascends to the terrace like a bronze shield and the cries of the birds crash against it. Somewhere in the middle floors of the block a light comes on.

Kang, unseen for two years, is now frantically gathering herbs and minerals from his cabinets and mixing them inside a silver urn. He sets the mix alight and, holding the urn with both hands, takes the stairs to the rooftop. The smoke coming out of the container is block03choking him and he falters. Up above, the birds go into a frenzy, like a panicked camp anticipating a devastating assault. The residents’ nerves are frayed. The folklorist, knowledgeable and dedicated as he is, breaks down and falls on his floor. Wracked by insomnia and shamed over recent events, Irene’s veins unfurl like satiated serpents. Her clammy skin is taut and, like a bow bent without mercy, she reaches her snapping point and starts screaming back at the birds.

At this very instant, the old pharmacist finally arrives at the terrace and places the urn. The smoke rises, flashing blue and crimson, and moves towards the malevolent flock. A vengeful shrieking pierces hill and building and human flesh alike but it cannot stave off this defeat. The birds rise, a flurry of screaming and feathers. Suddenly, all motion stops. For a time, the birds are suspended, as if pinned to a painted sky. At the blink of an eye, they are hurled across the night, as though swept away by the hand of a random god.

Silence descends upon the block. Kang slowly reclaims his weapon and makes his way back to his rooms. There, he retires among the paraphernalia of his trade and falls asleep next to his fragrant vials. One by one, the others come to their senses and rejoice: somehow, they have been reprieved. And no one is more aware of this unwarranted, unexpected and undeserved miracle than Sebastiano. He remembers when, more than ten years ago, the birds came and stayed screaming for a week. At that time, the taxidermist had tried to hang himself but failed. Old Cazares went insane. Arletta flung herself from her balcony to the dried riverbed below. The lives of all the residents were damaged and disrupted. Kang was away that week. Perhaps the birds knew it and that is why they descended upon the block for so long and with such soul-piercing and persistent malice.

But this night is won. Alexandra’s song can now be heard, victorious and unrestrained, climbing defiantly towards the darkened regions of the sky. Irene sits at her kitchen table, drinks her tea and smokes, waiting for the morning.

V.

The days reclaim their pace and unfold with languor. Majarek experiences a kind of peace that has eluded him for years. This morning, he has received an official-looking letter from the hot and distant land where he served his flag for many years. The letter acknowledges Majarek’s contributions. The new government is grateful for the assistance he rendered during the turbulent transition. An invitation to a ceremony is included and states, in no uncertain terms, that the Falcon’s Wings, the new country’s highest decoration, will be presented to him at the City Hall in one month’s time. Pride now softens Majarek’s gloomy and depressive tendencies. He can even follow Meletova’s moving figure with no more than basic pangs of pain. He starts making travel arrangements.

By noontime, all of the residents know. First, he tells Sebastiano. A random meeting with Schlossmayer by the boiler room gives him the opportunity to spread the news further. Then Irene hears the news. One by one, they all felicitate the military man and he accepts their smiles and their praise, unaware of the resentment in their hearts, a deep-seated rancor that arises from their diminished humanity, their isolation, their failures and inner exile.

The folklorist is the first to voice his objection, tactfully, of course, to Sebastiano and Irene. He clothes his seething jealousy in careful words. Wasn’t Majarek given a certificate of recognition by the opposition (now defeated and exiled) in that distant land? Hadn’t he accepted an instructor’s post at a neighboring republic when he was younger, a country often at odds with the one that now wants to decorate him? The folklorist is an expert at casting aspersions. He is motivated by selfishness and fear. Majarek’s ascension will overshadow the folklorist’s future accomplishments. He instinctively knows that this tenement block is large enough for only one man’s work to flirt with history.

Sebastiano is torn, because he considers himself Majarek’s friend. He knows that this honor will bring Majarek closer to his estranged family, taking him away from the block and the present miserable circumstances that bind them. The taxidermist wants the military officer to remain. He loves him. Of course, he would never admit it. He often reminisces to himself, about their evenings of companionship, about that shared estrangement, about that comfortable silence at dusk. He closes his eyes and sees Majarek smiling sadly, Majarek without the prosthetic arm, in all his glorious vulnerability. All his history, all his struggle, all his pride. All his loneliness carved in his lean face, all his past behind gray eyes that have gone grayer on long ocean voyages. The discipline, the self-denial, the dashed hopes, and more than anything, the nobility that lifts Majarek and separates him. Sebastiano agrees that perhaps the foreign government should be made aware of a possible conflict of interest that might take an embarrassing turn.

Alexandra likes the way Majarek looks at her; he makes her feel younger and desired. But in all the years they have known each other, he has never tried to beguile or seduce her. Her flesh has aged and withered and still Majarek waits. It is almost too cruel. Why does he taunt her? Bitterness overwhelms her. He denies her even as his gaze fills with yearning. How can she forgive him? If he were indifferent, if Alexandra merely suffered from unrequited love, bitterness would have no place. But this is too much for any woman to bear. And now Majarek looks happy and hopeful again. Where block04does that leave Alexandra? And so she agrees with the others that something must be done. She would deny him this new hope, this new beginning, the way he has denied Alexandra her own. Let them know he is no hero, no nation-builder! Let them know he plays all sides, he works for whomever pays, he swears no allegiance! He is like all other men, he disappoints and he compromises. But Alexandra is wrong. She does not know that Majarek is burdened by guilt. That Majarek supported the coup that ousted the previous government. That men from his own regiment dragged the Justice Minister outside the city, doused him with petrol, and set him aflame. That it was Majarek, himself, who stripped her parents’ estate of all valuables and set them on the path to exile. Majarek was young then and for the rest of his career he tried to make amends for the excesses of his youth and use wisdom and compassion in all his dealings. But he knows that to be with Alexandra—whose name he alone in the building knows—he would have to tell her the truth, and she would hate him.

The others have nothing against Majarek. But they fear change. And it feels wrong for anyone to leave the tenement block alive.

VI.

Schlossmayer sends the letter. He is an expert in such affairs. He has no quarrel with Majarek, but feels no empathy either. Where is Schlossmayer’s reward, where is what was promised to him? Unbeknownst to the others, Schlossmayer also sends another message, to Majarek’s estranged son, arousing the young man’s vanity and poisoning whatever remains of filial love and the awe he owes his father.

Two weeks pass. Sebastiano gives a lecture on taxidermy that only Irene and the folklorist attend. Kang makes a single appearance: he spends two hours at the terrace, next to the pigeon loft, looking for something. He is witnessed by two women, who might be new residents, and who happen to be visiting the terrace themselves. When they notice him they withdraw, as if they were caught doing something terribly improper.

Then, the two officials arrive. One is in uniform. The other is wearing a black suit. They inquire after Majarek. Majarek sees them upon returning from a walk along the riverbed with the taxidermist. Sebastiano has been trying to spend more time with his friend, now full of regret for going along with the plan to discredit him. Sebastiano is on the verge of confession. He hopes that nothing comes of their intervention, but he suspects that events have transpired that cannot be undone. When he sees the two men, his stomach turns. A pitiful sound escapes his lips.

Majarek recognizes both men and he smiles. Accelerating his pace, he leaves the taxidermist behind. He believes the men have come to congratulate him, these men who have shunned him for so long. He walks towards them with purpose, even more content for the fact that he is wearing his prosthetic arm and his clean suit jacket. The men straighten up as he approaches. Majarek outranks them.

Irene is about to exit the building when she sees the three men through the glass door. She stops. As she witnesses the silent drama, the thought occurs to her that what is transpiring is one of the stories told by the folklorist’s puppets, a tragedy played out in light and shadow. At first, all three men are stiff. Majarek becomes animated. The man in uniform hangs his head. Majarek turns to the man in the black suit. Irene believes that Majarek has just won some minor victory when the suit, with impossible speed, slaps Majarek across the face. The black suit takes out a letter and holds it up. Majarek takes it, reads it, and takes a small step back. Majarek sheds all nobility and bearing; the prosthetic hangs like a simian extremity. His knees buckle. The uniformed man quickly reaches out to him and steadies him. Majarek, invoking decades of pride and discipline, breaks free of the other’s grasp and straightens. Majarek again addresses the black suit. The man’s face registers surprise, disdain, doubt, fear, all in quick succession. Choked with shame, Irene wants to run out and tell the men it was all lies. Majarek is beyond reproach, Majarek with his one arm, and gray eyes, and tired smile, Majarek in his titanic solitude undreamt of by lesser men. Once, when phantom pains in his missing limb had become unendurable, he sought her out, but Irene had nothing with which to comfort him. He told her, then, how he lost his arm. Irene told no one else that story, but during awful nights, when regrets and insomnia threaten to unravel her, she remembers it, and tears of gratitude dampen her pillow until sleep claims her. Why have they done this to the best of them? Irene is certain she will run out. But she stays rooted in place until the uniform and the black suit leave and Majarek is left alone in the middle of the courtyard, forlorn and sacrificed and having lost something for which there is no prosthesis.

VII.

Majarek spends the night chain-smoking in his room. Painstakingly, he reconstructs what has happened and what needs to be done. He is a soldier and no stranger to pain, misfortune, and defeat, and he is block05not without allies. He has friends he expects will come to his aid. He was a great tactician once. Now, he plans his next move with great care, accounting for all contingencies. In his great mind he organizes his defenses. But he does not know that the great hollow horse is already within the city walls.

A young man comes to his door and knocks. The sun is still not up. The young man drove through the night, bursting with self-righteousness, and arrived to claim the confrontation that was for years denied him. No one saw him climb up the stairs and walk down the corridor leading to his father’s door. Sebastiano, unable to sleep, the glassy eyes of his dead animals looking at him accusingly, hears the knock. Like Irene, Sebastiano is drowning in remorse, and like Irene, he is not able to do a single thing to help his friend. Unlike Irene and Sebastiano, many others are sleeping peacefully at this hour. The folklorist is dreaming of Mount Merapi as seen from the top of Borobudur. Schlossmayer seems to have found meaning again through his last vile act. In molding and breaking the wills of men he finds both ecstasy and comfort. For a long time Schlossmayer has enjoyed Meletova’s protection; the woman is also a creature addicted to intrigue and subversion. She has acquired access to the residents’ secrets and unforgivable acts. She is the repository of their collective shame. Of course, she also knows Schlossmayer for who he is. But he shielded her after the old regime collapsed, after her lover was immolated, after her parents were driven out of their estate and their ancestral land, and she is indebted to him. She hopes Schlossmayer will die soon and release her from their terrible bond. Until then, she guards him, and those around him fall.

The door opens. Father and son face one another. Majarek looks incomprehensibly at the younger man. The light from the lamp makes Majarek’s shadow fall on the boy, heavy and absolute, the way it has been all their lives. The early hour, the stillness in the corridor, the window facing the darkened hill: the men stand suspended in time. The terrible meeting they both have craved is at hand.

The young man walks in. The door closes. Sebastiano hears their muffled voices in the adjoining room. The taxidermist stands still next to the wall, the tension stretching his body like a string. His lips are sealed, he guards his breath as though it were his soul. At first, the voices are indistinguishable. His friend’s voice is quiet, reasoning, pleading. The other voice starts low, but gets sharper, rises in anger, becomes shrill with indignation. Majarek, again: explaining, first with authority, then with sadness. The son: getting louder, mocking, erupting in cruel laughter. And then comes the inevitable, pillowy silence, heavy and stifling, draping the dawn in despair.

The son leaves, all threads cut, his father dead to him.

VIII.

It is a strange and glorious morning: the mist has lifted for the first time in years. On the balconies and on the terrace, in the courtyard and along the riverbed, the disbelieving residents turn their faces towards the sun and then gaze upon the verdant hills, which are resplendent and shining, as though they have just been polished to perfection. No one remembers such a day. The folklorist has left his desk and his chapter on Neolithic mummification techniques and stands before a massive, glassless window on the first floor corridor. Kang stands beside him, his eyes like milky orbs, and looks upon the trees on the hillside, impossibly well-defined against the dark but satiated earth. Has Kang regained the perfect eyesight he enjoyed in youth? Even Schlossmayer, a man resistant to natural beauty and an implacable enemy of common sentiment, grins like an idiot on the terrace, a fresh breeze caressing his dried and spotted face. Irene and Sebastiano have forgotten the apocalyptic night they have just survived and walk hand in hand—without even realizing it—towards the hills. Meletova has left her door open and music from her phonograph rolls down the staircases and climbs the barren walls before spilling out to caress them all with longing and delight. It is a virtuosic viola da gamba performance and the bass has a resounding, otherworldly quality. The concubine appears to have shed decades. She wears a long red gown with intricate lacework, its exquisite craftsmanship complementing the three rows of pearls resting on her alabaster skin. From his vantage point on the first floor, the folklorist sees her emerging in the courtyard and for a moment, violent, lustful and brilliant thoughts flash in his mind, the thoughts of a young man who, aggressive and self-assured, is about to embark on an adventure. He turns to explain this to Kang, but the old pharmacist is not there. Kang has gone below, to the basement beneath the basement, the one accessed through the trapdoor next to the janitor’s closet and down the staircase overseen by cabaret dancers and music hall performers on faded posters. The pharmacist has gone deep and will not come out again, for like ancient Diagoras, Kang has discovered that a moment of perfect happiness is the ideal moment for death.

Now the long forgotten and the no longer seen come out and reacquaint themselves with life and light and friends. The Krebs sisters, still clutching Thermos flasks full of plum liquor in their gloved hands, descend the hill and meet up with the nurse and the taxidermist. Strilic, the impresario, a man thought to have died or to have vanished fifteen years ago, appears on his balcony, though the door leading to his apartment remains sealed with layers of undisturbed dust. On any other morning this would be cause for alarm or astonishment, but not this day. Mesmerized, entranced and enchanted, the residents absorb rays of sun and bliss, all their troubles forgotten.

Inside his apartment, Majarek looks for a length of rope.

IX.

Indignities accumulate in his final hours. He has misplaced important papers, including details of people who might have otherwise been able to help him; he is out of food and drink; and he discovers that he is no longer in possession of his pistol. Despairing, he searches for alternatives. He does not find the rope he is looking for, but in a flash of clarity, he realizes that it would be of no use to him anyway: he is neither criminal nor traitor. Die he must, but not this way.

Alone in the building, drifting along corridors and staircases that appear lit for the first time, he makes his way inside various rooms. Irene’s bathroom cabinets are filled with pharmaceuticals, but he has no way of knowing their effectiveness. In the early moments of his desolation, he contemplated stealing embalming fluid from Sebastiano’s laboratory, but soon discarded the notion. He had a horrid vision in which he lay on the floor, without motor skills, twitching and soiling himself. Now he finds himself in front of Kang’s door, but it is locked. Despondent, he returns to his quarters.

He has knives, of course, ceremonial daggers sharp enough. But it is a perilous proposition for a one-armed man. He could ascend to the terrace and jump to his death. But men have been known to survive falls, even from great heights. And, of course, dignity, always dignity, the memory of his essence that must be preserved. So he leaves his rooms yet again, fearing that whatever is attracting the residents and keeping them outside will vanish, and that they will return to find him, adding more embarrassment to an existence that has become synonymous with it; or worse, noontime will arrive, forcing everyone into temporary banishment. The building has already started to tremble, an invisible wave rising out of the bowels of the lower basement. Majarek fears he will run out of time.

At last, he comes to Schlossmayer’s door and finds it open. Entering, he is astonished to find book-lined shelves and cabinets but nothing else that reflects the man: no photographs on the walls, no uniforms in the closets, no memorabilia from different times. He had not believed Irene’s description of Schlossmayer’s rooms. Now, bewilderment washes over him. He has trouble reconciling the old foreigner’s malice with his erudite predilections. Not for a moment block06has he doubted that Schlossmayer is behind the slander that has ruined him. Yet, he marvels that such a man should come to possess things of great value and beauty. Standing between two rows of incunabula, Majarek forgets the purpose of this hour. A large desk is situated in front of the grand window. On it, a Coronelli globe tilts at an impossible angle, but somehow remains in place supported by two woodblocks. Momentarily, the one-armed man considers a friendship that never was; the man who has undone him could have been a great companion. The conversations they could have had, the obsessions they could have shared. He sits on the leather armchair behind the desk and allows himself a moment of peace. He notices a glint from the top of a cabinet against the back wall. He looks at it until his eyes tear up, so strong is the reflection. He stands and walks towards the source of this unbearable brilliance. Wedged between a Flemish notary’s account of a medieval murder and a Buddhist scripture in Pali, reflecting the improbable rays of this improbable sun, he finds Schlossmayer’s firearm and relief envelops him. He takes the pistol in his hand and finds pleasure in the familiar weight. He returns to the leather armchair, the weapon evoking memories of battles fought under a merciless sun, a life of service and loss, of barracks and offices that stank of stale smoke, of ancient trains and desiccated plantations, of corpse-filled fields at dawn, of artillery shelling, of his amputated arm. But nostalgia evaporates, and only this acute present pain remains, a pain that wears the face of his son.

So he stands up and leaves.

On the stairs leading to the rooftop he sees an old couple, sitting like students, holding hands. He has not seen either of them before. The woman’s face is daubed with white and her lips are clownish and red. As he passes by, they both smile toothless smiles, smiles full of intolerable understanding. As he walks past, up the stairs, Majarek senses them standing, receding into the building, the midday hour fast approaching.

Finally, he arrives and stands alone at the top of the tenement block.

X.

They have all left. The hill, the ravine, the courtyard: all empty. The firmament has darkened. On the terrace, Majarek leans against the pigeon loft. He has always loved high places and he wishes to be buried in the sky.

No bitterness mars his final moments. The soldier knows his life is forfeit. Majarek feels light without his prosthetic; the unpinned sleeve is flapping in the wind. Beneath his feet, a deep silence reigns inside the block. He is utterly alone, but this mission is the simplest he has ever undertaken. Ever systematic, he test-fires the pistol at the distant city. The report reverberates all around the hill and the dried riverbed. There is only one question left: head or heart? He hesitates, not out of fear, but because he knows the ludicrous preoccupations of the living. For him, all that is random and all that is necessary, it all comes to an end. Does it matter if the casket is open or closed? His son will not be there. No one who matters to him will be there. And he discovers a certain freedom in this thought.

Time has always seemed slow in the tenement block, but Majarek’s ruminations have been lengthier than expected. Soon the residents will reappear and perhaps some will come to the terrace in order to gaze at the darkening hill from this very spot, a vantage point that justifies the entirety of the crumbling building that supports it. Majarek smiles at a memory: Olafsson, the folklorist, once told him a story about a man who promised to build a thousand towers in a single night and raised demons from the earth to help him do so. The demons worked through the night and were constructing the last tower when someone lit fires all around. Believing that dawn had come, the demons melted back into the earth and the man who had summoned them failed to keep his promise.

What nonsense! He takes one lingering look around. The sparse trees on the hillside appear to be undulating as if pressed from above. A bird rises out of the branches, followed by another and another until the swarm is formed. The familiar shrieking is heard as the corvids unexpectedly return for another assault.

Majarek puts the barrel in his mouth. When the metal touches the hard palate, he pulls the trigger.

end-of-story-nov

kostas

Kostas Ikonomopoulos was born in Athens in 1976. He studied in Greece and the UK. Over the years, he has worked in education, development, trading & outsourcing, gaming and publishing, in Europe, South Africa, China and SE Asia. He recently published a non-fiction book about ruined and neglected sites of cultural significance in Singapore, where he has been living for the past five years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. Not falling for it again.”

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

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

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

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

“Looks like an animal den or something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I’m still choking on her.

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

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

“I’m Beth,” she said again.

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

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dust2“Uh. Yeah. She stole our stuff.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Father made me a door,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Walk me home?” she asked.

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

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

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

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

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

“I want to show you something.”

The door closed.

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

“This way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever crawled along in the dirt laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

“I dream about her,” Lea said.

“Me, too.”

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

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

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

It took twenty years for me to come home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

end-of-story-nov

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

 

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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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