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The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou

First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Then

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

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

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

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In the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

story_bullet

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.

story_bullet

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

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

But that is not what Zhang Yong would have desired.

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

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

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

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

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

end_of_story

cassandra

 

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

 

 

 

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Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, by Sunny Moraine

Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows.

Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

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

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

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

Tell me about the times before the fires.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me stories about blue.

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

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

But tell me about the first one.

Omit the latter, if you can.

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

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

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

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

Tell me a story about all the pretty lies.

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

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

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

Tell me a story about when meat meant just animals.

Tell me a story about when you were whole.

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

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

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

Tell me a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

 

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

The One They Took Before, by Kelly Sandoval

craigslist > seattle > all seattle > lost&found
Sat 23 Jul
FOUND: Rift in the Fabric of the Universe – (West Seattle)

Rift opened in my backyard. About six feet tall and one foot wide. Appears to open onto a world of endless twilight and impossible beauty. Makes a ringing noise like a thousand tiny bells. Call (206) 555-9780 to identify.

Kayla reads the listing twice, knowing the eager beating of her heart is ridiculous. One page back, someone claims they found a time machine. Someone else has apparently lost their kidneys.

The Internet isn’t real. That’s what she likes about it. And if the post is real, the best thing she can do is pretend she never saw it.

After all, she’s doing better. She sees a therapist, now. She’s had a couple of job interviews.

She calls the number.

“Hello?” It’s a man’s voice. Kayla can’t identify his accent.

“Oh. Hi.” Her words come out timid and thin, almost a whisper. She stands and starts pacing the length of her apartment, stepping over dirty clothes and cat toys. “I’m calling about your Craigslist ad.”

“Oh!” He sounds surprised, but not displeased. “I’m glad to hear from you. So, when did you lose it?”

“Pardon?”

“The rift. When did you lose it?”

Yesterday? A thousand years ago? Time was meaningless there. She’s pretty sure it all happened a very long time ago.

“It’s complicated,” she says.

“Well, can you describe it, then? Tell me what color it is? I just need to be sure it’s yours.”

It isn’t hers. “Have you had a lot of calls?”

“A few crazies,” he admits. “Someone claiming to be my evil twin. That sort of thing.”

The cats, Ablach and Thomas, twist around her ankles. She leans down to stroke Ablach and presses her face into his fur. He hasn’t spoken to her since they got out. Neither of them have. “Have you tried going through it?”

“No. It’s not mine.” He tries to sound firm, but she knows the longing in his voice. They opened a door for him. It’s only a matter of time. “Listen, if this thing isn’t yours—”

“Don’t go through it,” she says. “Even if they ask you to.”

She hangs up before he can reply.

The cats watch her, unblinking. Gold eyes and silver. She tries not to imagine their voices.

“What?” she asks them. “I warned him. What else can I do?”

Ablach turns his back on her, tail lashing. Thomas rolls onto his back and lets her stroke his stomach.

“I’m not going back.” She repeats the phrase, over and over. Words have power. They taught her that.

After a few hours pass, she tries the number again. No one answers.

The Stranger Lovelab
23 / Man / Cal Anderson
Faerie Queen, saw you in Cal Anderson Park by the tennis courts. You wore a dress of hummingbird feathers and a crown of tiny stars. I asked for a light. I should have asked for more. Coffee?

For two days, Kayla avoids the Internet and every local newspaper. If they’re hunting again, she doesn’t want to know. On the third day, she dares to go out for coffee. A newspaper waits at the only open table, and she flips to the classifieds before she can stop herself.

The ad draws her eye immediately. It’s highlighted. She wonders if it was there before she sat down. If it will still be there when she leaves.

tookbeforeCal Anderson is only a few blocks away. And she’s still weak enough to need to know. Kayla leaves her full cup on the table and heads outside, flinching as she enters the sunlight. Long weeks of gray skies and soft rain don’t bother her, but these brief days of garish blue leave her longing for twilight.

Shirtless men and girls in bikinis crowd the park, and Kayla tries not to see them. They remind her of someone she was, and she still longs to slip back into that skin. It’s best not to think of it. Nostalgia, for either life, is poison.

She keeps her head down, and makes her way to the stand of trees that lines the tennis courts. No hummingbird feathers wait for her there. No tiny stars litter the grass. A group of teens jostles past and one of them reaches up to pluck an apple from the branch above her head. The fruit in his hand is the deep red of exposed muscle. Looking up, she has to tell herself that apples, not hearts, hang heavy on the branches. They are huge and numerous, an out-of-season abundance. Also, it’s not an apple tree.

She runs home and sobs quietly until Ablach and Thomas climb into her lap and lick her tears with rough tongues. After that, her sobs aren’t quiet at all.

Seattle Times Online
Category: The Blotter
August 1, 2013

King County Sheriff’s Office seeks the public’s help in locating a Seattle area woman

Josey Aarons, 24, was last seen on July 30th at the Triple Door on 216 Union Street, where she was performing with her band, The Sudden Sorrows. According to her friends, Aarons was supposed to meet them at an afterparty but never arrived.

Witnesses report Aarons was seen outside the venue with a woman described as having skin the color of a summer moon and eyes as deep as madness. Aarons is 5 feet 9 inches tall, 150 lbs, with short blond hair and brown eyes. She was last seen wearing black jeans and a green trenchcoat. She was carrying a gray messenger bag.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of either Ms. Aarons or her companion is asked to call the Sheriff’s Office at 206-555-9252.

Kayla sits, her guitar in her lap, and strokes the smooth wood like it’s one of the cats. When she first got back, she took a knife to the strings, sawing through them one by one. It didn’t hurt at the time. It hurts now, when she longs for the comfort of melody. But she knows better.

If she plays, they will hear her.

They will take her back.

She is trying so hard. She goes to yoga class. She watches TV.

She rocks in the dark of her apartment, the glow of the computer screen creating a sort of twilight.

Is she loved, this girl that they have taken? Do they kiss her, their lips honey-sweet and dizzying as brandy? Does she realize she is theirs? That they will pet and praise and keep her, drape her in diamonds and bask in her light, but never let her go?

Until they do.

Freedom is its own kind of prison.

In Kayla’s apartment, the computer glows, and it is nothing at all like twilight.

She tries to tell herself the girl will be okay. They will keep her for a few eternities, but they will also set her free again. She can rebuild.

Kayla is.

She picks up the phone and dials the number for the Sheriff’s Office. She tells them she knows about Josey.

“Wait a year and a day.” She says. “They won’t keep her forever.”

Except, of course, they will. They kept Kayla even longer than that.

That’s two, Kayla thinks. They’ll claim one more. They like patterns, cycles, rules.

She tells herself to ignore it. It isn’t her problem. She can’t save everyone. If she interferes, they’ll find her.

She tells herself she doesn’t want that. She says it out loud. There’s supposed to be power in that.

Seattle Times
August 3, 2013
Explanation sought after fatal hunting trip

The death of James Garcia, a Tacoma area accountant, has left police with more questions than answers. He was hunting in Silwen Falls with his brothers Marcus and Eric Garcia when the fatal accident occurred. While the details are still unclear, the brothers said James Garcia separated from his party early on the morning of the August 3- at a blind he was accustomed to using, and where he intended to remain for most of the day.

Sometime around noon, James Garcia left his shelter and removed all his clothing, including his orange safety vest, before approaching the blind his brothers were sharing. In the ensuing confusion, the brothers said they mistook him for, in the words of Marcus Garcia, “a stag of shadow and dream, its antlers cast from sunlight.” Eric Garcia admits to taking the fatal shot. Investigations are ongoing, police said.

Kayla remembers the bright cry of horns, horses with hot breath and red eyes, stags with human screams. Her keepers, clad in spider-silk and frost, the mad need in their joy. She tries to think of the dead man. She thinks, instead, of trays piled high with venison, air spice-laden and thick with laughter. Hunger twists in her stomach and she forgets to be ashamed.

She makes herself a sandwich, ham and cheddar on white bread, but only manages a few bites. Everything tastes like beige.

Thomas jumps into her arms, a furry mass of gold and shadow, and purrs deep and low. The sound usually calms her, reminds her to settle and stay. She should sit down, stroke him, find center.

“I don’t need them,” she whispers into his fur. She tries turning on the TV, but every show is a meaningless mix of colors and noises.

Ablach paces at the door, his cries high and bright as a hunting horn.

“Don’t trust him,” she tells herself. “Don’t trust any of their gifts.”

But he sings her heart, and she sets Thomas aside.

Outside, the stars are hidden behind a thin wash of cloud. Kayla follows Ablach down major roads and through slender alleys lined with overflowing Dumpsters. The route is circuitous and random but she recognizes where he leads her. Cal Anderson Park. She’s alone on a tree-lined sidewalk, looking for a shadow in a world of them.

Ablach cries above her. She looks up, finds him watching her from the branches, his eyes like silver coins. She reaches to stroke him and her fingers close around a heavy fruit made russet by the night. It doesn’t smell like an apple. It smells of blood and honey, of sex and song.

The juice is silver and she licks it from her fingers when she’s done. Ablach lets her carry him home.

Seattle Times
August 4, 2013
Obituary

James Carlos Garcia, 43, was lost in a tragic accident on August 2. A man of courage, humor and intelligence, he was an active member of his community and a dedicated husband and father.

He leaves behind three children, Peter Garcia, Mary Winner and James Garcia Jr. He is also survived by his wife, Alice Garcia.

He loved hunting, Bruce Springsteen’s music and his family.

A celebration of his life will be held on August 10 at 7:30 PM at the North Tacoma Community Hall.

The funeral, Facebook tells her, is on the sixth. She sends flowers, the biggest bouquet the florist has. Money isn’t an issue; they sent her back decked in gold and strange jewels. She waited weeks for it to fade or turn to leaves but the gold, like the memories, refused to leave her. It means she doesn’t have to work, or leave her apartment, or forget.

An obvious trap, and she’s been trying to fight it. Of course, she hasn’t sent out a job application since she called about the rift. Hasn’t answered her phone, or emailed the people she tells herself are her friends.

tookbefore2She doesn’t intend to go. The one responsible is sure to be there; they love to watch. Even on the morning of the sixth, as she puts on a dress of black silk and gold lace, she imagines she will stay home. The dress was her favorite, before. Now she can only see it as an echo of something grander. She has worn a cloak of dragonfly skin over a gown woven from the scent of roses. They set her at the feet of the queen and when she played, they drank the notes from the air.

It will not happen again, Kayla tells herself, as she restrings her guitar. And maybe it won’t. But she isn’t sure anymore.

She lets the cats out before she leaves. Ablach disappears with a confident stride but Thomas presses himself against her legs, crying to be picked up and trying to follow her into the cab.

“If you would only ask me to stay,” she whispers, as she sets him back on the pavement, “I might.”

But he doesn’t ask.

The cab pulls up at the church well after the service is scheduled to begin. She considers going in, makes it all the way to the door before deciding against it. The family already has one voyeur to their pain. She can at least save them a second one.

She waits beside the door and tries to enjoy the feeling of the sun on her skin. She remembers longing for daylight, then screaming for daylight, then forgetting what daylight meant.

It’s a difficult thing to learn again.

“They are crying in there.” The words settle onto her skin like she’s walked into mist, a cat’s purr of a sound: low, self-satisfied, demanding. “Painting their faces with ash,” it says, “and tearing their clothes with sorrow.”

Its skin, Kayla sees, is more the color of an autumn moon than one from the summer, but its eyes are certainly deep as madness and the iridescent feathers of its hummingbird gown shame her simple dress. She lowers her eyes, curtsies. The gesture is automatic, and she hates herself for it.

“What did he do?” she asks. It’s fear, not excitement, that sets her heart racing. She’s glad to fear them again.

“Do?” Its purr warms with amusement. “He did nothing. He did not catch me bathing or cross my path to start a riddle game. He sat in his tent and did nothing at all. He bored me.”

Yes, that was a sort of crime. What use were humans if they refused to be fun? She stopped being fun, near the end. She sat and rocked and sobbed and would not give them their music.

They sent her home, after that. She thought they freed her. But here she is, standing before one, her guitar at her side.

“You have not played,” it says. “We listen, still. And you give us nothing. Are you still broken?”

“Not like I was,” she says. And realizes her mistake as it smiles.

“You were her favorite,” it says. “Our Lightning Bard.”

“You have a new one now,” she says. She tries to keep her breathing even, but the scent of it makes her dizzy. “Unless she’s already broken.”

“So unkind. We offer her wonders.” It glances up, stares at the sun.

Kayla wants to kiss its neck, drink eternity from its veins. She digs her nails into her palms. “Did you offer her a choice?”

“Of a sort. She followed me.”

“She didn’t know what she followed you to.” But Kayla does.

“Are you jealous?” it asks, voice silken with amusement. “You needn’t be. We can still take you.”

And yes, she is, isn’t she? She wants those first wondering months, before she could see the rot beneath the gilt. She wants the luxury of not yet knowing what it means to love them.

“No.” She forces the word out through clenched teeth.

“I have leave to barter,” it says. “We have no need for two musicians. And it would be novel to win the same soul twice.”

The church door opens and the mourners begin to stream out. Kayla catches sight of a man’s face, ugly with pain, and recognizes him as one of the dead man’s brothers. It doesn’t even glance his way. The man’s loss is no more than a daytime rerun of a once amusing show.

“No,” she whispers it this time, crossing her arms in a vain attempt at comfort. “It wouldn’t last.”

“You could be our pretty one again, our summer storm.” Its voice is thick and sweet. The world fades and reduces itself, the sun hiding, the mourners hushing their cries.

Kayla’s tears are hot on her face and she’s afraid to brush them away. She could say yes. She could tell herself she was being generous, playing the sacrifice. “Did you take her just for that? To offer in trade?”

Is it her fault, or does she only want to believe she means that much to them?

“I care little for your questions, Pet. Will you come?”

This is the part where she says yes and it drags her back to that land of endless twilight and impossible beauty. This is the part where she falls.

“No,” she says, the third time she’s rejected it. She stands straighter, meets its eyes. Her guitar case falls from limp fingers. If it makes a sound as it hits the steps, she doesn’t hear it.

“Very well,” it says, the purr gone from its voice. “But we will be listening. And you will tire of mortality and dust.”

She is already tired of mortality and dust. Tired, too, of being locked into the need of them.

“You can’t keep me,” she says.

It leans in and kisses the salt from her lips. Its breath smells like storm clouds, all electric promise. “Oh, pretty one. We already have.”

The world lurches, empties, and she’s alone on the church steps. The mourners are leaving, a long procession of cars already disappearing down the street.

She calls the cab back. Rides home in silence.

A year and a day. An eternity. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But they always send back what they take, shattered husks of what they once found beautiful.

Kayla will wait. Apply for jobs. Mark the calendar.

She’ll be ready, when the time comes. No one waited for her. No one understood. It can be different, this time. She can help.

And that can be a sort of winning.

fin

Kelly Sandoval lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. Her family includes a patient fiance, a demanding cat, and an extremely grumpy tortoise. In 2013 she attended Clarion West and lived to tell the tale. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Esopus, Asimov’s, and Flash Fiction Online. You can find her online at kellysandovalfiction.com.

Kelly Sandoval
Kelly Sandoval
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Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dragon rustles in response, contracting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quod erat demonstratum,” Cantor whispers.

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

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

“Others will grow,” Cantor told him.

“For how long?”

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

The boy nodded. “Time enough, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before the winter,” Cantor says.

“And I will curse you.”

“What empowers you to curse, wyrm?”

“I curse everyone who wonders.”

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

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

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

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

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

“The second step is carved with a name.

“The third step too is so carved.

“Yes, on each step is cut a name.”

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

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

“And Judgment Day has never come.

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

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

“Heaven is empty.”

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

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

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

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

“But will I be alone?” Rudolf whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I choose heaven,” Cantor says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fin

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

Craig DeLancey
Craig DeLancey

 

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